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Going to the Source : The Alex Theatre's musical staging of 'Sayonara' ignores the famous Brando film. Instead it stays true to the three love stories developed in James Michener's original novel.

January 28, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

GLENDALE — Is it a trend, turning successful films into stage musicals? Not necessarily.

"Sunset Boulevard" at the Shubert Theatre is the film, with music added. The musical version of James Michener's "Sayonara," which opened last night at the newly refurbished Alex Theatre, ignores the popular Marlon Brando film and finds its source in Michener's original novel, without Hollywood's, and Brando's, adjustments.

It's also not a Johnny-come-lately. Director Philip William McKinley was introduced to "Sayonara" in script form in 1985, and the first staging took place at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 1987. It's been developing ever since, until this incarnation had its premiere last year at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, then transferred to Seattle, then moved into its local venue.

McKinley's idea is to make audiences forget the film, in which one of the three love stories that run through the novel was deleted.

"We became much more dedicated," McKinley says, "to the story that Michener wrote in the novel. The movie was a vehicle for Brando. That's the main difference. We've tried to be faithful to Michener and the characters in the novel. In some ways it was difficult, because you have really three love stories. You're tracking all three of them, and they all end very differently."

McKinley, who has directed many musicals at regional theaters coast to coast, recalls that Michener came to the Houston production and was pleased that it stayed true to his book.

That was when the director found out that "Sayonara" is the author's own story. Michener was the officer who dated the Takarazuka performer.

"It's his story," McKinley says. "He's married to an Asian woman now. Years later the two of them went back to Japan and found the lady, and met with her. You wonder where the story came from. It's all true."

The story of the romance between Major Ace Gruver and Hana-Ogi, a Japanese Takarazuka revue performer, reflected the social taboos of the day. Their love was doomed. Michener's feelings on the subject were first reflected in the story of Lt. Cable and Liat in "South Pacific," and Cable's heartbreaking anti-prejudice ballad "You've Got to Be Taught."

The emotions are just as strong in author William Luce's book for the musical.

McKinley says: "It's an interesting show in that there aren't a lot of musicals that have suicides in them, and deal with the dramatic emotions that this story deals with. A lot of people said you have to have a happy ending, which the film did. To me there was a lot more there, about the different cultures, and how in that period of time in our history for two people from those opposite cultures there was just no way that relationship could have existed, especially coming from the restrictions of her life and his life."

The show is, of necessity, one that must have a strong book, harking back to the traditional form of the American musical, rather than the pseudo operas popular today.

The form also gives opportunities to choreographer Tony Stevens, whose Broadway credits include "Perfectly Frank" and "Rockabye Hamlet." More than half of the play's musical numbers are Japanese in style, with the remainder ranging from what Stevens calls "really show-bizzy dance numbers, to a jitterbug, to a fan dance."

The emotional span, from comedy to high drama and deep romance, is a choreographer's dream, Stevens says. "The show deals with every kind of theatrical device you can think of."

McKinley smiles at the word device. "We certainly don't do it like Noh theater. But you have a real sense of being in a Japanese setting, and a great deal of the action is underscored, and in that sense it's very cinematic."

Both of the show's leads have been with the production since Houston. Joseph Mahowald was in the Broadway production of "Les Miserables," and was appearing in "Assassins" at a regional theater in Ohio when he flew east for the audition for Ace Gruver.

He says he was calm at the audition, partly because he had only seen the film with Brando once. "This has a completely different feel," he says. "I really didn't pay much attention to the film. It didn't intimidate me at all. I knew that this was my role. I read the script and listened to some of the music, and I just thought, 'This is mine. It's mine. ' I had such a connection with it. It's a great piece, with a lot of depth. It's a heart-wrench."

As Hana-Ogi, Sala Iwamatsu may be familiar to Los Angeles theatergoers. She's the daughter of noted stage and screen actors Shizuko Hoshi and Mako, who was for many years artistic director of Hollywood's East West Players. Iwamatsu debuted at age 3 in that theater's production of "A Doll's House." Her friends and family haven't seen her perform on Broadway as Mimi in "Miss Saigon" or in "Sayonara."

Her father is the one she's nervous about. "I'll cry either way," Iwamatsu says, "whether he says I'm good or I'm bad. This is the first role where I finally am an adult. I'm mature and I'm strong. And I'm Japanese. It's exciting."

Where and When

What: "Sayonara."

Location: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 13.

Price: $10-$50.

Call: (800) 883-7529.

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