Review: ‘Sayonara’

Sayonara" is a new musical that feels dated upon arrival. By staying all too faithful to its source material -- a James Michener novel from the 1950s -- this 1990s work saddles itself with the musty and sometimes offensive racial and sexual attitudes of a previous generation.

Sayonara” is a new musical that feels dated upon arrival. By staying all too faithful to its source material — a James Michener novel from the 1950s — this 1990s work saddles itself with the musty and sometimes offensive racial and sexual attitudes of a previous generation.

The show, which premiered in Houston last year and played Seattle before settling into Glendale’s gorgeous Alex Theatre, also has more mundane problems, including a lack of memorable melodies and lyrics that lapse into banality with appalling regularity.

The story revolves around three U.S. military officers stationed in Japan in the early 1950s who fall in love with Japanese women. The central character is Korean War hero Major Lloyd (Ace) Gruver, who throws aside his relationship with a general’s daughter when he becomes infatuated with beautiful Japanese showgirl Hana-Ogi.

The military brass’s attempts to break them up provide most of the drama. Ultimately, both Gruver and Hana-Ogi must choose between their love for one another and their loyalty to their respective families and careers.

Portraying such cross-cultural relationships sympathetically no doubt made “Sayonara” seem liberal in its day. But today, it’s hard to excuse the fact that the focus is entirely on the men, while Japanese women are basically either ciphers or passive pleasure-givers.

The musical’s creators attempt to counter this with a brief number for Hana-Ogi in which she proclaims she’s proud of her Japanese heritage. This is too little, too late; it in no way compensates for the condescension toward Japanese culture that permeates the piece.

It is telling that Major Gruver gets to sing at length about the fact he is torn between love and duty, while Hana-Ogi remains offstage and silent. She feels as loyal to her theater troupe as Gruver feels toward the military. So why isn’t that number a duet?

Composer George Fischoff throws a few faux-Japanese sounds into an imitation 1950s Broadway score. Librettist Hy Gilbert has some fun with cliches of the period during the big showgirl numbers — and then lapses into those same cliches during the more intimate songs.

The cast is capable, though none of the actors succeeds in bringing dimension to their characters.

Philip Wm. McKinley directs fluidly; a montage sequence in which Gruver attempts to get Hana-Ogi to notice him is handled nicely. The scenic design is lovely, and it thankfully does not overwhelm the show.

In the 1957 film of “Sayonara,” Marlon Brando played Gruver with a strong Southern accent. By contrast, the only character in the musical with a Southern drawl is the racist officer who breaks up the marriages. In writing this nominally anti-bigotry musical, have the creators revealed some bigotry of their own?

“Sayonara” is the first theatrical performance at the newly refurbished Alex (which last hosted live drama in 1936). From the handsome courtyard to the fanciful decor above the proscenium arch, the theater looks stunning, and the amplified sound is quite acceptable.

Sayonara

(Alex Theatre, Glendale; 1,468 seats; $ 50 top)

Production

Theatre Corp. of America, in association with Pasadena Playhouse Presentations Inc., presents a musical adapted from the novel by James A. Michener; book, William Luce.

Creative

Music, George Fischoff; lyrics, Hy Gilbert; director, Philip Wm. McKinley; choreography, Tony Stevens; musical director, Steven Smith; sets, Loren Sherman; costumes, Jonathan Bixby; lighting, Kirk Bookman; sound design, Francois Bergeron, Johnathan Deans. Opened and reviewed Jan. 29, 1994; runs through Feb. 13.

Cast

Lloyd Gruver ... Joseph Mahowald Hana-Ogi ... Sala Iwamatsu Joe Kelly ... Michael O'Steen Katsumi ... Ako Mike Bailey ... Robert Patteri Gen. Webster ... Tom Urich Miriam Webster ... Judith McCauley Eileen Webster ... Frances Epsen Fukimo ... JoAnn M. Hunter Col. Crawford ... Tony Gilbert
With: Steve Gray, Takayo Fischer, Randy Hills, Bambi Swayze, Addie Yungmee, Mimosa, Kristie Furuta, Denise Iketani, Diana Iketani, Yan Lin, Marjorie Mann, Blythe Matsui, Jane Monreal, Stefanie Morse, Sissy, Chiaka Toda, Felicia Wong, Mark Santillano, Richard Wojnowski, Jamy Woodbury, Vincent Zamora.
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