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Pacific Overtures

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 4, 2017

Thom Sesma, Megan Masako Haley,
George Takei, and Marc Oka
Photo by Joan Marcus

The elusive heart of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Pacific Overtures remains missing-in-action in director John Doyle's truncated Classic Stage Company production, in which characters and songs have been inexplicably dropped like feathers from a molting chicken. What's left is essentially a well-performed 90-minute semi-staged concert featuring a talented Asian American cast, who blessedly are not called upon to play musical instruments, a hallmark of several of Doyle's past projects (Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro). In keeping with the spare presentation, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has reworked the score to fit the nine-member orchestra, conducted by Gregg Jarrett.

Pacific Overtures never was one of Sondheim's great successes, even with its ambitious, often operatic score inspired by Japanese music. The original 1976 Broadway production ran for fewer than 200 performances, although it did garner ten Tony nominations and won for Florence Klotz's elaborate costumes and Boris Aronson's grand scenic design. Here, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes consist of contemporary street clothes augmented with bolts of Japanese-print cloth that are thrown over shoulders or used to represent bodies of water or tatami mats. The appropriately simple set, one of Mr. Doyle's contributions (with David L. Arsenault credited as associate designer), brings to mind a ship's sails or an unfurling Japanese scroll. A big plus is that the often awkwardly arranged space at the Classic Stage Company has been well configured this time, with audience members seated on both sides of the runway stage and practically no bad sight lines to be found.

The foreshortened plot (Doyle worked with John Weidman on the cuts to the script) still retains a focus on the insistent efforts of the United States and several European nations to enlist Japan as a trading partner. It begins with the arrival of Admiral Matthew Perry on the shores of Japan in 1853 and examines the general westernization of the country over time. The story itself is told through the eyes of the Japanese, so that the intruders come off as caricatures, culminating in the crowd-pleasing romp of a number, "Please Hello," which makes an equal opportunity mockery of the Americans, British, French, Dutch, and Russians.

Presented as an intimate chamber piece, Pacific Overtures's strengths are, unsurprisingly, musical ones. These work best with such low-key but beautifully composed songs as the Haiku-inspired "Poems," a number that serves to bond two companions on a long journey. The pair, Kayama (Steven Eng) and Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), have been appointed to prevent the Americans from stepping onto Japanese soil. Later, when it is clear their efforts have failed, Kayama has another effective song, "A Bowler Hat," which shows him transitioning to Western-style dress and habits.

The show's perfect gem is "Someone in a Tree," sung by a character referred to as Old Man (Thom Sesma) in a duet with his younger 10-year-old self (Austin Ku). When he was a boy, Old Man was an eyewitness to the comings and goings of the Japanese and American visitors to the treaty house. Everyone is eager to learn what he saw from his perch. But as he describes his experience, it becomes clear he is unable to provide any information that would actually shed light on the proceedings. "Someone in a Tree" singularly encapsulates the show's most significant theme, the inability of any of us to fully communicate with others, especially with those whose culture and language and experiences and understanding of the world are vastly different from our own. Like Old Man, we simply do not know how to adequately interpret what we see and hear. In the musical, the broader communication gap leads to an economic invasion of Japan by foreigners, and, ultimately, to a backlash that introduces a new rise of isolationism and xenophobic militarism.

Unfortunately, the deconstructed production also serves to highlight a big problem that remains with Pacific Overtures. The intimacy of the setting heightens our awareness of an overreliance on narrative exposition to tell its story, starting with the opening when the Reciter (George Takei, lending a calm and dignified presence to the proceedings) tells us that Japan has lived for centuries "in perfect peace, undisturbed by intruders from across the sea." The surrogate for the audience is a young woman (Megan Masako Haley), who enters the set as if she were visiting a pavilion at Epcot Center and studying a diorama on the history of Japan's relationship with the West. The intrusive narration distances the audience from the characters, so that it is very difficult to experience anything beyond an intellectual interest. The strongest emotions are the delicate ones that come across in the relationship between Kayama and Manjiro, and between Old Man and his younger self.

Fans of the score are likely to be bothered, as well, by the elimination of three numbers: "Lion Dance" (a song for Admiral Perry, who does not appear in this production), the instrumental "March to the Treaty House," and, in particular, the witty and memorable "Chrysanthemum Tea," dropped, logically perhaps, because the role of the Shogun has also disappeared. In truth, "Chrysanthemum Tea" is the one song almost everyone who saw the original Broadway production remembers with great fondness, so losing it will undoubtedly raise some hackles.

Still and all, and despite its flaws, this is a show that is seldom produced. If you can navigate your way past the problems, you will find there is much to enjoy. The cast is uniformly excellent, including those previously listed, along with Karl Josef Co, Kelvin Moon Loh, Marc Oka, and the always terrific Ann Harada, who delights as the Madam leading her "girls" in greeting the visiting sailors in "Welcome to Kanagawa." If the lack of opulent sets and costumes bothers you, you can always close your eyes and listen to the music. Then, when you get home, go ahead and listen to a recording of "Chrysanthemum Tea."

Pacific Overtures
Through June 18
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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