The story is based on Commodore Matthew Perry's opening up of Japan to the Western World in the mid 1800s and the aftermath as a country closed to foreigners for 100 years ricochets into modern times. Interwoven with the political tract is the tale of two young men brought together by the events. Kayama, a dispensable minor official, is chosen to dismiss the American warships in the harbor, and Manjiro, a condemned prisoner, has his sentence commuted so he can assist with his knowledge of foreign ways.
(The prisoner is also loosely based on a historic figure, a shipwrecked 14-year old Japanese seaman who was brought to live and be educated in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Despite an edict forbidding it, he dared to return to Japan to see his mother ten years later and became instrumental in the establishment of Japanese American relations.)
The tale is told from the Japanese point of view with the foreigners as the comic villains. The original production directed by Harold Prince had unforgettable sets by Boris Aronson and dazzling costumes by Florence Klotz. It was informed by musical theatre conventions but borrowed heavily from the traditions of Kabuki style Japanese theatre. Despite the strong affinity of the one for the other - both rely on dance, drama and music to tell a story, both incorporate design and spectacle for a heightened effect and both are considered "populist" entertainments - the differences confounded the critics and defied audiences' expectations.
While this production embraces the style and intent of the original, it improves upon it in several ways. First and foremost, three decades has made all the difference in a director's ability to cast an ensemble of Asian-American performers with all the necessary musical theatre chops. This cast is extraordinary.
Steven Eng (Kayama) and Jason Ma (Manjiro) capture our hearts as they outwit both the visiting Americans and the Japanese officials to save their own hides. Their friendship, cemented in "Poems," a lovely, sparse Sondheim lyric and melody, takes on a tragic trajectory in the years following the opening up of Japan, brilliantly depicted in "A Bowler Hat," one of my all time favorite musical theatre moments.
Those two numbers are just the delicate decorations on top of the icing on the cake. "Someone in a Tree," one of Sondheim's favorite musical theater moments, acknowledges how little is known of the exchange of documents between Perry and the Japanese officials - or perhaps of any historic event. The number blends three perspectives in uplifting harmony: an old man (Alan Muraoka) recounting what he remembers; his younger self (Randy Reyes) who can see, but not hear, from the branches of a cherry tree; and a Samurai warrior (Erwin G. Urbi) hidden beneath the floor of the treaty house who can hear, but not see.
And to extend the pastry metaphor a little further, the "cake" in this case is full of perfectly rendered comic treats. The first delight is "Chrysanthemum Tea," a musical scene in which the Shogun's mother (Mikio Hirata) enlists the aid of her son's useless wife, soothsayer, priest, and physician before dealing with the dilemma of the war ships in the harbor in her own way.
"Welcome to Kanagawa" allows a Madame (Alan Muraoka) to educate us along with her new recruits from the farm and demonstrate that the foreigners weren't the only ones who foresee economic opportunity.
Sondheim then outdoes himself with "Please, Hello" at the top of act two in which he conveys, in a comic "tour de force" of musical styles, that the return of an American admiral (Erwin G. Urbi) opens the flood gates for the British (Alan Muraoka), the Dutch (Jason Ma), the Russian (Ronald M. Banks) and the French (Allan Mangaser).
The attribution of names above illustrates two essential facts about the production. In keeping with the Kabuki tradition, men play the women's roles. The only female members of the company are the two stagehands who operate in full view of the audience cloaked entirely in black to represent invisibility, another Kabuki convention. The other startling revelation is that, in this case, a cast of only fourteen play some 60 odd roles, somehow managing to get in and out of Paul Tazewell's gorgeous, elaborate costumes for each one.
Another startling difference between this production and the original is how the intimacy of the venue, along with the paring down of Neil Patel's exquisite scenic elements for an in-the-round configuration, affords a new clarity. It's easier to focus on Kayama and Manjiro at the center of the situation and to view everything else as an elucidation rather than a distraction.
This is the final stop for this production that originated at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park then moved on to Atlanta's Alliance Theatre (where Gash is associate artistic director) before being re-staged for the NSMT. All three theatres are to be congratulated for coming up with this collaboration and thanked for committing the necessary resources to allow the vision to be fulfilled.
Pacific Overtures, a co-production of NSMT, Cincinnati Playhouse and the Alliance Theatre, is at the North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly, Mass., now through Sunday, September 14th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00p.m. with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2p.m. (Please note that the performance on September 2 will be at 7p.m.).
"Out at the North Shore", an evening for the Gay and Lesbian community, will take place on September 11 at 8p.m. with a post-show reception in the Broadway Club. Tickets are priced from $26 to $63 and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at (978) 232-7200, via the website at www.nsmt.org or in person at the theatre.