Few American composers have tackled as many diverse subjects as Stephen Sondheim, but his 1976 musical describing the Western commercial exploitation of Japan clearly stands out as one of his most unique creations. Borrowing techniques from the Kabuki and Noh Theatre (wherein women’s roles are played by men and scenic changes are performed by stagehands dressed in black in full view of the audience) and musically built around the Japanese five-tone scale, this show forces audiences to adjust their theatrical paradigm and evaluate American Imperialism.
The story unfolds passionately through the eyes of two characters: a traditional samurai, played with understated finesse by Danny Bernardo, and Kent Haina, Jr. as a meek fisherman who evolves into a fierce anti-American warrior. This musical, based on historical facts known by every Japanese child, begins with Commodore Matthew Perry’s ominous arrival in Kanagawa upon his fleet of “Four Black Dragons.” While many Japanese resist the Western invasion others embrace it, and we witness its effect on a nation that has been isolated from foreigners for 250 years. Ultimately businessmen and entrepreneurs replace the feudal shoguns and emperors. This journey of events, which begin in 1853 and sail to the present, are linked together by The Reciter, dynamically portrayed by Equity actor, David Rhee. His manic movement and articulation allows him to slide seamlessly in and out of the story playing several pivotal roles.
Porchlight’s strength once again is its dedicated artistic team. Spending weeks in Tokyo researching her culture, Eugene Dizon’s musical direction is both masterful and authentic in the sound he gleans from his modest five-member orchestra. L. Walter Stearns has assembled and directed a versatile all-Asian cast (a first for a Chicago production of this seldom-produced work) and saturated his production with beautifully stylized Eastern movement, thanks to the talents of four brilliant choreographers. Add to this artistry Carol Blanchard’s colorfully elaborate costumes, masks and puppets and Kurt Sharp’s sliding translucent paneled scenery and audiences will find themselves transported to the Land of the Dragon and immersed in an incomparable, thought-provoking experience.