Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Looking Back Artfully: “Waterfall” makes classic forms new again
Any time a musical looks back in time, and involves a romance between an English speaking foreigner and a native of a country in Asia, the parallels begin to pop into one’s head: “Sayonara” and its tragic love story, “Madame Butterfly” and its tragic love story, and the like. So perhaps the first thing which must be said about Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s “Waterfall,” the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse is that, three-hankie ending though it may have, the story-line proves significantly more nuanced. It could have been pure melodrama, but at important moments chooses not to go there.
Placed on one of the more imaginative, fluid sets theater can offer, the deeply episodic “Waterfall” offers up lush music, thoughtful lyrics, and a storyline gifted with just enough cultural insight and edge-of-your-seat tension to avoid slipping into the maudlin. Its characters are well drawn, though in some cases this is as much about the artfulness of the performance as of the script. The event is a visual treat, and in the end offers not just a satisfyingly adult romance, but a view of the conflict and coexistence of western and Asian culture from a distinctly Asian lens.
The story revolves around the tensions of the late 1930s, just as the Japanese rise is beginning to look dangerous for its neighbors. Noppon, a Thai student who dreams of America, is studying in Japan. When he is delegated to escort a much-venerated senior Thai diplomat and his American wife, arrived for negotiations with the Japanese government, he finds himself smitten with Katherine, the wife. Surrounded by the tensions of the rise of empire, their story plays out in predictable and then less predictable ways. The ending is, in its own way, a study of the human spirit and what motivates people to move into an understanding of themselves.
Bie Sukrit is Noppon, taking him from youthful excitement to steady adulthood with heart and a certain genuine quality which makes him particularly endearing. Emily Padgett creates in Katherine, a woman thrown into a culture beyond her experience, a careful combination of enthusiastic tourist and wistfully aware outsider. Both sing well, and connect with an intensity which powers the rest of the piece. As Katherine’s aging, cautious diplomat husband, Thom Sesma provides an anchored balance to Noppon’s youthful enthusiasm – an image of both maturity and roundedness not without its own aura of romance.
Also standouts in the large and mostly ensemble cast are Lisa Helmi Johanson, most memorable as the buoyant Japanese-American young woman caught between two worlds, neither of which will accept her as she is, and Jordan De Leon and Colin Miyamoto, who prove delightfully silly and youthfully fatalistic as Noppon’s two school friends. Perhaps the finest example of creating a character much more fascinating than the script comes from J. Elaine Marcos, as the diplomat’s longtime family servant. A look, even the twitch of an eyebrow, adds volumes to what she is to actually say to the other characters, and helps underscore the impact of a swiftly changing society.
In all of this, and with the aide of an impressive singing and dancing ensemble who become everything from traditional Thai ballet dancers to Japanese soldiers in formation to guests waltzing at an embassy ball, the underlying theme is one of the Asian view of the world. The wrenching “America Will Break Your Heart” underscores the prejudice and rejection facing anyone of Asian descent in the US in the first half of the 20th Century. The sly “I Like Americans,” sung by a Japanese official, offers up a view of the west as boorish, underscoring the American proclivity (both then and, sometimes, now) to be unaware or uncaring about the traditions of others. And yet, there is also plenty of invective to go around between Asian nations in a time frame of advancing imperialism closer to home.
To a great extent, and beyond Maltby’s articulate book and lyrics, the even-handedness of this piece can be laid at the feet of co-directors Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges – who also choreographs – and is emphasized by the multi-national nature of the production itself. Sasavat Busayabandh’s set takes as its inspiration the watercolor of a Japanese waterfall which proves central to the storyline, and turns embassies, venerated Thai monuments and Japanese peaks into a series of paper canvases, aided by Caite Hevner Kemp’s evocative projections. The flow of torn paper takes us from place to place with a seamless quality which never allows the story to lag. Shire’s music is beautiful, often evocative, and thematically ties all the bits together as thoroughly as the set does.
Indeed, this is what makes this particular production of this particular musical stand out the most: it’s woven together so well. There are no dead spots, and the musical and visual themes which run like ribbons through the storyline keep momentum and direction flowing so elementally that one is surprised when it comes to an end. It seems so soon.
So yes, this is a romantic tale, but it goes back to the roots of the modern American musical in a way some others of recent note have not: it supplies a romantic base, but uses it to say things much larger about human nature and human connection, and about culture and society. In this it is less like those romantic tragedies mentioned above, and more like “South Pacific.” If the ending is not storybook, neither is the story. Still, in that more carefully human approach, there is enough pathos and joy to provide quite a hook. Indeed, the night I saw it the audible sniffling all around me as it closed said a great deal more than the applause about audience connection.
So there you have it. Go be one of the first to see “Waterfall.” You will be glad you did. I cannot believe this musical will not be going places in a big way.
What: “Waterfall” When: Through June 28, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30-$87, plus premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org