Pacific Overtures Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Additional material by Hugh Wheeler.
Directed and Choreographed by Amon Miyamoto. Set and mask design by Rumi Matsui. Costume design by Junko Koshino. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Based on an October 2000 production directed by Amon Miyamoto at the New National Theatre, Tokyo Japan (Tamiya Kuiyama, Artistic Director). Original Broadway Production Directed by Harold Prince. Cast: B.D. Wong, Eric Bondoc, Evan D'Angeles, Rick Edinger, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Yoko Fumoto, Alvin Y.F. Ing, Fred Isozaki, Francis Jue, Darren Lee, Hoon Lee, Michael K. Lee, Ming Lee, Telly Leung, Paolo Mantalban, Alan Muraoka, Mayumi Omagari, Daniel Jay Park, Hazel Anne Raymundo, Sab Shimono, Yuka Takara, Kim Varhola, Scott Watanabe.
At last it can be told: The official color of Japan is beige. This stunning revelation comes to us direct from the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Pacific Overtures at Studio 54, where beige isn't just the dominant color, it's the driving philosophy.
Almost nothing can disrupt the stillness of this production of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler), which, as directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto, makes you wonder why Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 opening of Japan was such a big deal. Only at the end of the first act, when a towering and monstrous Perry appears in the town of Kanagawa to make his case, does Miyamoto's Japan begin to seem an interesting place.
This is certainly a unique interpretation of one of Broadway's most curious musicals, as the original 1976 Harold Prince-directed production strived to present Japan as a driving cultural force both for itself (in the opening number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea") and eventually for the world at large (in the fiery closing song, "Next"). Heavily tinged with Kabuki and extravagant Boris Aronson sets and Florence Klotz costumes, the production was opulent, daring, and, at 193 performances, not a success.
Yet one doubts that Miyamoto's intent was to preserve his native country's placidity through his Broadway staging; his 2000 production of the show (which, spoken and sung in Japanese, played briefly at Lincoln Center two summers ago) painted a darker but livelier picture. That production was acclaimed by many critics for its spare, Noh-infused look and take-no-prisoners presentation of the material, and though it lacked the original production's lavishness, its urgency and vivifying style generally proved adequate compensation.
In Miyamoto's current Broadway rendering, an adaptation of his previous one, that style has evaporated and left behind only a curious mélange of half-realized concepts. Costume designer Junko Koshino and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt make valiant attempts to energize the production with their work, but no colors they invoke can pop against the expansive beige blandness of Rumi Matsui's Shinto-temple set. Equally problematic, the underpowered seven-piece band, playing vitiated Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, is under Paul Gemignani's uncharacteristically leaden baton.
These elements only draw attention away from the cast and reduce them to inconsequential pieces in a larger, still-jumbled puzzle. Though the cast members perform in English, they may as well speak and sing in Japanese for the connection they make with the audience; everyone, including B.D. Wong, who stars as the history-relating Reciter, has been directed to act, sing, and dance with the kind of fervor that makes Japanese history lectures seem rousing.
Vital characters like Kayama (Michael K. Lee), the traditionalist lured into serving his country to keep the Americans out, and Manjiro (Paolo Montalban), the American-friendly captive who assists Kayama, barely register, alone or in their duet, the ramblingly staged "I Will Make a Poem." And when the two slowly shift attitudes in the quietly unsettling "A Bowler Hat," the important moment is treated and lit in a way so unassuming that you may wonder whether Japan's feelings for the West ever changed at all.
Wong's brash, youthful performance utterly lacks authority and doesn't establish a sense of history or importance to the proceedings. More successful at lending much-needed gravitas are Sab Shimono and Alvin Y.F. Ing, veterans of the original production. Shimono, the original Manjiro, is an authoritative Lord Abe; Ing successfully reprises his original turn as the Shogun's scheming mother, who's determined to keep the Americans out, and also claims as his own the role of the old man who recollects what happened the day they finally arrived.
But Shimono's big number, the second-act opener about Japan's introduction to international trade, "Please Hello!," is staged as an unnecessarily busy celebration of five countries' flags, and the lyrics border on the incomprehensible. And though Ing charmingly performs his portion of that most quintessential of all Sondheim songs, "Someone in a Tree," Miyamoto's staging makes it more about the treaty house (apparently cast off from a community theatre mounting of Peter Pan) than the unknowability of history and how the effects of such uncertainty ripple down through the ages.
It should be the defining moment in a show about changing perspectives and attitudes on global and personal scales. But "Someone in a Tree" is here only one in a series of reserved scenes and songs, meditations on meaning and emotion rather than representations of them, however abstract. Only in "Next," when Miyamoto stages the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's devastating retribution, does the production take a firm stand on anything.
That the moment is almost sardonically heavy-handed is beside the point; at least something finally breaks through the barrier of serene tranquility that otherwise always separates the show from its audience. Only in that moment are any musical and dramatic possibilities of this Pacific Overtures realized, allowing the show - to paraphrase the Reciter in the opening number - to float. The rest of the time, it drowns in its own beige pretensions.