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Sayonara Review: A Musical of Michener’s Midcentury Tale of Marriage Equality

Sayonara 7a The ensemble of SAYONARA photo by John Quincy Lee

In some ways, the Pan Asian Repertory Theater’s wonderfully choreographed and beautifully designed production of “Sayonara” could not be better timed. The 1987 musical, adapted from James Michener’s 1954 novel (which was also made into the 1957 movie starring Marlon Brando), tells the story of an American fighter pilot stationed in Japan during the Korean War who falls in love with a Japanese woman, at a time when the law discouraged them from marrying; U.S. military personnel were actually banned from bringing their Japanese brides back to the United States.
There’s an extra, unintentional frisson of relevance in that the object of his affection impersonates male characters as a leading performer in the famous all-female Takarazuka Theater. Major Lloyd ‘Ace’ Grover (Morgan McCann) first sees Hana-Ogi (Ya Han Chang) dressed in an elegant men’s suit– which recalls a similar scene in “Victor/Victoria,” except nothing whatsoever is made of this gender-bending attraction in “Sayonara.”
It is also worth pointing out — in light of the imminent arrival on Broadway of “Allegiance,” a musical about the Japanese-American internment camps – that Michener’s third (and by far longest-lasting) wife was a Japanese-American who had been incarcerated in such a camp.
Yet, for all its indirect relevance and the pedigree of its Michener origins, there’s something obvious and old-fashioned about “Sayonara,” a fact perhaps tacitly acknowledged by its director, Tisa Chang, who founded the Pan Asian Repertory Theater 38 years ago to provide more opportunities for Asian-American artists. Her production, she writes, is a “re-imagining” of the musical, playing up the female Japanese characters’ “integrity and strength” and playing down their “exoticism.”
I haven’t seen previous productions of this musical, but this one strikes me as not re-imagined enough; it is still told almost entirely from the GIs’ point of view, with the Japanese still presented as the (sometimes adorable, aka childlike) foreigners in the little-changed book by William Luce. (Luce is best known — and better-appreciated — as the author of “The Belle of Amherst,” the play, written as a vehicle for Julie Harris, about the poet Emily Dickinson.)  Nevertheless, there’s no question that the women hold the greater interest. This is in large measure because of the quality of their performances…in direct contrast to the male actors’.
Both the men and women have lovely voices, but Edward Tolve as Private Joe Kelly, the good-hearted galoot who weds a Japanese woman, is the only stand out among the men as an actor. The others give performances that range from bland to amateurish, surely in part (but not entirely) a result of the clichéd military characters they are being asked to portray – the by-the-book general, the snooty consul, the gruff bigoted colonel, the uncomplicated leading man.
When the musical begins, Ace doesn’t even want to be in Japan – he’d rather be in Korea flying missions rather than stuck in a desk job – and he disapproves of his friend Joe’s relationship with Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano). The son of a four-star general, Ace is expected to marry Eileen (Jennifer Piacenti), the daughter of General Webster, Ace’s superior officer:
“I’ve always wanted to marry a girl like you,” Ace tells Eileen.
“Like me?” Eileen replies. “Lloyd, I’m not a type, I’m me.” (I beg to differ.)
This leads to a duet:
Will we be so near, so very near, and yet so far away
(a sample of Hy Gilbert’s uninspired lyrics.)
Shortly afterwards, Ace sees Hana-Ogi perform (in men’s clothing, remember) and starts waiting around for her every day at a bridge. Hana-Ogi notices him, but pays him no mind, because “My father was killed by American planes…And my brother at Hiroshima.”
Will love change the hate in both their hearts?
Have you ever seen a musical?

“Sayonara” is no “South Pacific,” the hit musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted from Michener’s first book (eight years, four books, and two wives before “Sayonara.”) But George Fischoff’s music, if not especially memorable, fuels some entertaining choreography by Rumi Oyama, who makes the most of the tiny stage at Theatre Row, using the 19-member cast inventively in dances that mix Broadway and Japanese influences (She also does a winsome turn as the character Fumiko.) Sarah Brett England’s musical direction for this production smartly includes a Japanese-inflected underscoring. They and the designers and costumers (within what’s clearly a tight budget) do their utmost to try to turn the women characters – portrayed by Chang and Hirano, Oyama and Ako Dachs — into enchantresses of great grace, and, ok, integrity and strength.

Sayonara, at the Harold Clurman Theater of Theatre Row, is schedule to run until July 26, 2015

Update: Director Tisa Chang informs me of the following:

“We did correct as much as possible given copyright limitation, We also deleted  the demeaning GI Joe song in Act 1 and inserted the Top Hat number from Act 2.”

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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