by Samuel L. Leiter
First: a few background words on this show’s evolution. In the years following the end of America’s postwar occupation of Japan (1952), a steady stream of movies and books about the clash of cultures between the American military presence and the Japanese citizenry poured forth. Of great interest were the romantic complications ensuing when GIs married Japanese women, as reflected in such movies as A Japanese War Bride (1952) and Sayonara (1957). The latter, based on James A. Michener’s bestselling 1954 novel, won four Academy Awards and starred Marlon Brando. Despite sterling performances and images of 1950s Japan, however, its sentimental datedness and length now drag it down.
Michener had been encouraged to write his book by Broadway director Josh Logan, who had staged the megahit South Pacific (1949), based on Michener’s stories; Logan was hoping Michener’s new book could become a Broadway musical that might benefit from its exploitation of Japan’s colorful performing arts. The story’s heart is in the tale of racial prejudices embedded in the love affairs of Americans and their Nipponese girlfriends. Instead of a musical, Logan turned the book into the aforementioned movie, and it wasn’t until 1987, when Sayonara: The Musical premiered at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, that others adapted it as a musical. (It hews more closely to the book than does the movie.) After meeting with an unenthusiastic reception, it underwent alterations and had multiple presentations, but none in New York. The disappointing production now at the Clurman, directed by Tisa Chang, is the show’s Big Apple premiere.
It’s easy to see why Sayonara shows musical theater promise. Set in the exotic locale of Kobe, Japan, in 1952, it focuses on a conflicted Korean War pilot, Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Morgan McCann, in the Brando role), a general’s son with a bright future. At first, Gruver buys into the official military proscriptions against “fraternization,” despite the thousands of American servicemen ignoring the rules. (Michener himself was married to a Japanese.) Gruver is engaged to Eileen (Jennifer Piacenti), daughter of Gruver’s C.O., General Mark Webster (Scott Klavan), who, with his wife, Miriam (Sandy York), holds anti-Japanese prejudices.
Gruver reluctantly agrees to be best man at the interracial nuptials of Private Joe Kelly (Edward Tolve) and Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano), which brings him into the orbit of the beautiful Hana-ogi (Ya Han Chang). She’s the leading performer of male roles in the all-women revue company called Takarazuka, in which the performers live a convent-like life separating them from the opposite sex. The Hana-ogi connection allows for a tab version of a Takarazuka show, Sayonara’s musical highlight, energetically choreographed by Rumi Oyama. Gruver’s affair with Hana-ogi causes the expected complications, and Joe and Katsumi’s marriage is victimized by punitive policies that, as the libretto emphasizes ironically, were already on the verge of extinction.
Despite the story’s romantic, geographic, and socially provocative potential, Sayonara suffers from a flatfooted book (William Luce), uninspired lyrics (Hy Gilbert), and generic music (George Fischoff), some of it with Japanese overtones, whose weaknesses emerge when restricted to an offstage keyboard (Sarah Brett England) and reeds (Michael Mahadeen). One can only imagine what South Pacific’s Rodgers and Hammerstein would have done with this material, given their other excursions into theatrical orientalia.
Aside from the various kimono (credited to Keiko Obremski) worn by the Japanese characters (not a man among them), there’s not much here to admire visually in a show that cries out for spectacle. Even the military costumes (credited to Carol A. Pelletier) are slapdash. Working on a clearly restricted budget, set designer Sheryl Liu provides a dullish unit set of sliding panels, dominated up center by a red Japanese bridgeway, representing the passageway from the Takarazuka theatre to the performers’ dormitory but also symbolizing the bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. A shoji screen backs scenes in Joe and Katsumi’s home, where a rather unattractive noren curtain hangs in the doorway.
In addition to several casting misfires, including a carelessly coiffed leading lady who’s as Japanese as chow mein, the production falters from singing that never gets its nose beyond mere competence. I’m happy, however, to applaud Ako Dachs as Teruko-san, the older woman who rules firmly over the Takarazuka performers. Dachs, who was in earlier productions of Sayonara in other roles, brings distinct vocal and physical skills to her supporting role. Her Teruko-san offers a nice contrast to the more stereotypical servility of women like Katsumi.
Sayonara—with its theme of lovers struggling to overcome social prejudices in order to marry—is still relevant, if not in the way Michener intended. But relevance can’t overcome artistic and technical flaws. I saw the show at a preview, when things seem not to have fully jelled; hopefully, problems like the lack of a tight, rhythmic undercurrent; inefficient scene shifts; and off-key singing will be improved. If not, audiences will be saying “sayonara” soon enough.
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).