Two memorable vocalists and a four-hankie tear-jerker of a story are the prime attractions in Army Community Theatre's timely and topical production of "Sayonara." Sherry Wong and Stefanie Okuda are the singers who make this obscure musical worth seeing.
'Sayonara' presents a compelling story
despite ACT's usual sound problems
By John Berger
That ACT was able to present "Sayonara" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is a wonder. The group lost rehearsal time and for a while, due to security concerns, we're unsure whether civilians would be allowed on base. That the show is as good as it is overall is a tribute to veteran director Glenn Cannon and the talent of his cast -- Wong and Okuda first and foremost.
"Sayonara" is probably better known as the movie starring Marlon Brando and Red Buttons, or in its original form as James A. Michener's 1954 novel. It is the story of Air Force Major Lloyd "Ace" Gruver and Japanese entertainer Hana-ogi, the top male impersonator in the Takarazuka Revue. It takes place in Japan during the Korean War, when American laws did not allow American military personnel to take Japanese "war brides" back to the States.
Airman Joe Kelly could not care less about race laws and regulations. Kelly (Red Buttons in the movie, Kris Derego Caffield at ACT) is an ex-juvenile delinquent who joined the military to avoid a prison term. He has nothing going for him at home and is willing to give up his American citizenship if that's what it takes to marry the Japanese woman he loves.
Major Gruver is outraged by Kelly's attitude. Gruver (Brando in the movie, Dawe Glover at ACT) is a career officer. His father is a four-star general. His girlfriend, Aileen Webster, is the daughter of a three-star general. Gen. Webster has Gruver transferred from Korea to Kobe and has Eileen come to Kobe from the States.
Gruver arrives in Japan convinced that he and Eileen will marry. He is equally convinced that no decent American military man would get involved with a Japanese woman -- certainly not an American officer!
Presented by Army Community Theatre
Where: Richardson Theatre at Fort Shafter
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Nov. 30, Dec. 1 and 2
Tickets: $12 and $15 for adults; $6 and $8 for children; no sales at the door due to increased security. Order in advance by calling 438-4480
Gruver rethinks those assumptions as he spends time with Eileen and his future in-laws, meets Kelly's Japanese wife, and goes bar-hopping with an upstanding Marine officer who chooses to disobey the "no public fraternization" regulations that Gen. Webster has enacted at Mrs. Webster's insistence.
Gruver meets Hana-ogi, and his world is turned upside down. Enter Sherry Wong, who is excellent as Hana-ogi. She has the stage presence that makes Gruver's sudden infatuation believable. She also has a remarkable voice.
Yes, this is, alas, another ACT show in which malfunctioning microphones and inept work on the sound board mar most of the musical numbers, but Wong's voice cuts through the general cacophony and prevails over the orchestra's volume as well. Her first big number, "G.I. Joe," is a satire of the American slang of the era but firmly establishes her star status. She shines more brightly with each song that follows.
Stefanie Okuda sings a bit more softly but still gives an impressive vocal performance as Katsumi Kelly. Okuda's brief appearance as Juan Peron's teenage mistress was one of the brightest musical moments in ACT's staging of "Evita" last spring. Okuda has several such numbers this time and is clearly on her way to even bigger roles.
Dawe Glover likewise has a better role to work with than in some of the other musicals he's starred in. He again proves himself a competent leading man. He was one of several victims of the sound system on opening night, but "Reflections," one of his biggest and most important numbers, came through loud, clear and with ample dramatic impact.
Kris Caffield, clearly at one with the dynamics of his role, was less fortunate than Glover when it came to the sound. There were several times when he could not be heard over the orchestra at all.
Given the chronic sound problems it may be said fairly that Eric Field (Capt. Bailey) and Eric Richards (Col. Craford) are fortunate in having non-singing roles. Both men add depth and color with their performances. Richards quickly establishes himself as the villain, an American officer who enforces the racist "no fraternization" regulations with excessive zeal and sadistic delight.
Masayo Ford (Fumiko), Barbara Kaneshiro (Mrs. Webster) and Bob McGreggor (Gen. Webster) are likewise notable in three of the other major secondary roles.
"Sayonara" is relatively obscure, and the songs as heard at ACT are rarely more than serviceable, but the story is as powerful as any in modern theater. Anyone looking for musical theater that addresses serious topics rather than "fluff," in this case the harm caused by racism during an unattractive era in American race relations, will find ACT's "Sayonara" solid and sobering entertainment despite the sound problems.
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