By Malie Bifc USA
Full reviews of WATERFALL I thought are interesting reading.
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 that must be said about Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s “Waterfall,” the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, is that though it may have a three-hankie ending, the storyline proves significantly more nuanced. It could have been pure melodrama, but at important moments it 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, who have arrived in Japan for negotiations with the Japanese government, he finds himself smitten with the wife, Katherine. Surrounded by the tensions of the rise of an 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 making 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 that 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.
Other 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, who plays the diplomat’s longtime family servant. A look, even the twitch of an eyebrow, adds volumes to what she is actually saying to the other characters and helps underscore the impact of a swiftly changing society.
In all of this, and with the aid 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 an Asian view of the world.
The wrenching “America Will Break Your Heart” underscores the prejudice and rejection facing anyone of Asian descent in the U.S. 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 multinational nature of the production itself. Sasavat Busayabandh’s set takes inspiration from 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 that 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 production of this musical stand out the most: It’s woven together so well. There are no dead spots, and the musical and visual themes 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. It is less like the romantic tragedies mentioned above, and more like “South Pacific.” If the ending is not storybook, neither is the story. Still, in the more careful 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 about audience connection than the applause.
So there you have it. Go be one of the first to see “Waterfall.” You will be glad you did. This musical should be going places in a big way.
L.A. Theater Review: ‘Waterfall’ with Thai Pop Star Bie Sukrit
“Waterfall,” the new cross-cultural, lushly romantic tuner at the Pasadena Playhouse, has admirable ambition, visual splendor and patchy dramaturgy. Working from a Thai source novel, stage veterans Richard Maltby Jr. (words) and David Shire (music) seek to explore cultural identity in personal and political contexts, set against a complex historical backdrop. Which is all too tall an order at this stage of the show’s development. Characterizations and plotlines will need to be firmed up if the next stop, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in October, is to be followed by a hoped-for Broadway success.
Set in the Far East in the simmering prewar 1930s, the story has a central triangle that’s straight out of Somerset Maugham: Older ambassador (Thom Sesma) brings young, flighty American wife (Emily Padgett) to his Tokyo posting, where sparks fly with an even younger Thai student (Bie Sukrit) possessing, in his words, “an American eye.” And a roving one.
While our main couple explore each other’s values — and eventually, bodies — a newly democratic Thailand aspires to a place on the world stage through ginger negotiation between two bombastic rising empires, Japan and the U.S. of A. (At times “Waterfall” plays like a de facto “The King and I” sequel, with Mrs. Anna and the young Prince envisioned in a modern Siam.)
Choosing to examine not two but three clashing cultures offers plenty potential conflict, as characters are interestingly pulled among Japanese pan-Asian militarism, American rah-rah capitalism and traditional Siamese serenity. Co-directors Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges manage to avoid kitsch in evoking each of those elements, as do Knechtges’s dances, so respectful of the traditions from which they spring.
Every scene in “Waterfall” is a visual delight, with Ken Billington’s lighting limpidly bringing out the East’s shimmering palette in Sasavat Busayabandh’s scenic designs. Giant stone-like panels, sliding to reveal and conceal, are jaggedly diagonal to suggest a world threatened with imminent disharmony, even as Caite Hevner Kemp’s watercolor projections make that world seem so very appealing.
Shire’s score, his most versatile work for the musical stage, sets Asian-tinged melodies against robust percussion and jazz interruptions, all filtered through Jonathan Tunick’s cliche-free, period-evocative orchestrations.
But Maltby’s lyrics are light on the striking metaphors one associates with Eastern verse. And in a show already harping on personal identity, he takes too much advantage of “Thai”/”I,” “Siam”/”I am” rhyming.
Most importantly, our protagonists aren’t ready for prime time. The likeable Sukrit, a pop star back home, has a fluid, restrained singing style. But the character he’s been handed is nothing more than a goofy bumpkin with an America fetish. Katherine, the wife, professes to see in him the soul of a vigorous new Siam, but we never can. When he’s supposed to age into a seasoned diplomat, it’s like a kid playing dress-up.
Katherine looks ravishing in Wade Laboissonniere’s gold and chiffon gown (all the costumes, in fact, dazzle). Yet she’s written with irritating timidity. Despite the character’s “notorious” past, Padgett is directed toward ice queen, then drab artiste and finally fading swan.
If the lady were torn between the carnal and spiritual — a Maugham specialty — the glowing Padgett would have something to play. Instead, she’s saddled with a ridiculous comedy relief ditty in which she asks her maid (J. Elaine Marcos) to teach her the ways of “a good Thai wife.” (Something hubby never says he wants, and something not just out of character but never brought up again.
The climactic act-one bath in the titular waterfall is more awkward than lusty. Why are musicals always so demure about sex, when sex is the engine that always drives them?
The new musical Waterfall is trying really hard.
The show is about Siam as it transitions to being Thailand, so it’s trying to differentiate itself from The King and I, a revival of which is currently playing an acclaimed run on Broadway. Speaking of Broadway, Waterfall is trying to transfer there — the production at the Pasadena Playhouse is intended as a pre-Broadway trial run. The show is also trying to not be as racist as most other musicals about Asia (see: Miss Saigon, the writers’ last foray into Southeast Asia).
It succeeds on the first and last counts — but don’t count on a Broadway transfer anytime soon.
The first act of the show is promising. After a clunky introduction song, the plot follows Noppon (Bie Sukrit, a Thai pop star), a young man from Siam, studying abroad in Japan. Noppon is obsessed with America, and soon becomes obsessed with the ambassador’s wife, Katherine (Emily Padgett), a beautiful American. While the focus is mostly on the romance between Noppon and Katherine, the book (by Richard Maltby, who also wrote the lyrics) occasionally veers off on historical tangents, showing the sometimes-tense atmosphere in early-1930s Japan.
While musicals about history can be interesting, Waterfall is most compelling when it leaves the focus on Noppon and his friends rather than on pre–World War II politics. Despite some pitch problems, Sukrit is utterly winning, skillfully shouldering a musical in his second language and hitting the show’s comedic beats with ease. Similarly, his friends (Jordan De Leon, Colin Miyamoto and Lisa Helmi Johanson) are vivacious and entertaining, and their number “America Will Break Your Heart” is probably the most adeptly written song, combining social consciousness with pointed humor.
Things take a turn for the dreary in the second act, which feels unnecessary — the story is pretty neatly wrapped up by the Act I finale. Waterfall’s second half is mostly about dying and how evil Japan was in the mid to late 1930s. For historical context, the audience would be better served by visiting the small exhibit the Pasadena Playhouse has put in one of the theater’s lobbies. The score in the second act also features too many songs that sound like cheap Sondheim knockoffs, which are not the composer’s strong suit. David Shire is a talented composer, and as far as most of the show is concerned, it’s refreshing to hear a new work that doesn’t sound like every other new, Sondheim-aping score — his best songs are stylistically similar to the more classic musicals.
Visually, the show is beautiful. The scenic design, by Sasavat Busayabandh, is lushly evocative without being overbearing, and the titular set piece is stunning. The choreography, by Dan Knechtges (who shares directing duties with Tak Viravan), is also striking, borrowing imagery from Thai, Japanese and American culture.
Beauty isn’t enough to save a show, though, and Waterfall still doesn’t feel ready for public consumption, given how much of a drag the second act is.