Most theater musicologists would probably concur that the Stephen Sondheim– John Weidman musical “Pacific Overtures” is a stunning if also vexing example of the concept musical. The most avid of Sondheim’s fans could also offer many compelling reasons why “Pacific Overtures,” above all his other shows including “Follies,” is the composer’s most conceptually daring.
In a hardly daring but certainly carefully considered move, The Roundabout Theater engaged Japanese director Amon Miyamoto to re-stage and choreograph this nevertheless problematic episodic pageant. Considering the polarity of its East-Meets-West theme, this production is, in turn, vivid and dull, stimulating and enervating, classy and trashy, but above all else musically brilliant and challenging.
That Miyamoto has stamped this historical saga with a restraint and a conscientious flair that acknowledges both the Oriental and Occidental theatrical traditions is an achievement that is not without its pitfalls. His concept was initially seen (but not by me) in a Japanese language version presented briefly as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002. By evoking more of the accessible Noh theatrical tradition rather than the more highly stylized Kabuki (used in the original Broadway production), Myamoto has carved a generally clearer path through Weidman’s emotionally vacant plot, much of it dense with secondary characters and subplots.
Myamoto’s choreography, however, will strike Broadway sophisticates as naïvely retro. But he has done a lot to insure that the fusion of American and Japanese theatrical traditions and temperaments are not viewed as a compromise but rather as a carefully considered conceit. As performed by an all Asian cast, the story of the opening up of a feudal Japanese society in 1853 to the trade-seeking American Commodore Perry is presented within short intricately structured scenes that propel the action with the help of a narrator, a role undertaken with audacious constraint by B. D. Wong.
Through the maze of major and minor characters that populate this history-based story, it remains for the United States and Japan to remain the chief protagonists. This emphasis does not help to sustain our interest in individuals who come and go, pose and sing, live and die, without eliciting much empathy. The sole exception is the suicide of Kayama’s wife Tamate (Yoko Fumoto). But even that seems like a gratuitously offered “Madama Butterfly” moment rather than a scene that emerges out of a dramatic conflict.
More involving is the scene in which the leering British sailors’ “Pretty Lady,” disturbingly propels an attempted rape. Michael K. Lee, as Kayama, the young man who rises in authority to governor, and Paolo Montalban, as Manjiro, the fisherman/thief who becomes an embittered samurai-trained rebel and Kayama’s adversary, give the most striking portrayals. Also bringing authority to his role is Sab Shimono, as the increasingly dismayed Lord Abe. One major issue is the lack of clarity in the lyrics making the words too often unintelligible except to those familiar with the text.
Not lost in this production, specifically through the use of grotesquely caricatured masks on the Americans, commonly referred to as “barbarians,” is the fearsomely condescending American attitude that personifies these tall and imposing Imperialists bent on bringing Japan out of its sacredly administered isolation. In the light of current events, it is impossible not to consider and have serve as a reminder, however regretfully, that there is hardly an insular sovereign nation left in the world that is not being seduced by the powers that promote globalization and industrialization.
Above all the ceremonial pageantry and pretensions, the musical boasts a remarkable Sondheim score that evokes age old mystical simplicity with new age conceptual wit. I cannot remember whatever it was that prevented me from seeing the original Broadway production in 1976. But a more intimately conceived Off-Broadway production in 1984 introduced me to the musical’s inherent glories without reference to any of its possibly lost virtues or failings.
Weidman’s book is especially clever in its anecdotal cohesiveness, and with additional material credited to Hugh Wheeler, will probably be thought of as more vindicated than it was initially. Yet one wonders if the sadness we feel as we watch the Japanese lose their will to resist American determination is actually compounded by the new ending that brings Japan into the modern age and includes an image of the bombing of Hiroshima.
The subtly hued robes and black uniforms designed by Junko Koshino rest easily on the eyes. Designer Rumi Matsui’s Japanese-temple setting, with its shifting screens, two pools of water (that those in the front orchestra unfortunately won’t see) and a draw bridge that rises and lowers down the center of the orchestra, enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s atmospheric lighting, is effective. The seven-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Sondheim’s loyal colleague Paul Gemignani, fulfills the demands of the Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, providing a neat showcase for the lute and more than the usual collection of exotic percussive instruments.
In many ways, the simplified orchestrations help us to appreciate Sondheim’s score, a perfect example of this musical artist’s lyrical technique and musical ingenuity. Except for “Welcome to Kanegawa,” a vulgar song and a no less than horrifying drag exhibition by the town “Madam and Girls,” other songs such as “The Advantages of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea,” “Four Black Dragons,” “A Bowler Hat,” and “Chrysanthemum Tea,” wittily convey a cultural heritage more precisely than a hundred years of scholarly historical documenting. This then is a maddening mixture of the pretentious and the sublime that won’t necessarily gain new converts but will more than satisfy the already initiated.
“Pacific Overtures” (through January 30th)
Roundabout Theater Production at Studio 54, 254, West 54th Street.
For tickets ($36.25 – $91.25) call 212 – 719 – 1300