Regional Reviews: Boston
Today, Pacific Overtures may be one of Stephen Sondheim's least-known efforts. This musical opened on Broadway in 1976 in an impressive and innovative run of shows written by Sondheim in tandem with director Hal Prince. John Weidman, who would later collaborate with Sondheim on Assassins, wrote the book. After the success of Company and A Little Night Music, a tale of 19th-century Japan opening trade to the West was an unconventional subject to musicalize. Even now, it's not staged often; you're likely to find ten Sunday in the Park with Georges before you have a chance to see Pacific Overtures. Under the thoughtful direction of Spiro Veloudos, the Lyric Stage Company offers a beautifully minimalist read on this underappreciated musical, showcasing its plaintive music and making a case for its admirable reexamination of history from Japan's point of view.
With a cast of eleven and an orchestra of four, Lyric's production feels right for Sondheim's spare melodic lines and his delicate lyrical poetry. The striking set is designed by Janie E. Howland, with blossoms hanging from the rafters and a red torii gate housing a wall of hand-painted screens. Gail Astrid Buckley handsomely costumes her cast in an array of traditional robes that perfectly capture the era. Scene by scene, this musical is small in scale, a set of interlinked vignettes mirroring the set's rotating screens, where each scene focuses on just a few characters from across society as they make sense of the incoming Westernization.
Woven through this tapestry are two main characters, the samurai Kayama and the fisherman Manjiro, men united by negotiating with the arriving Americans and eventually taking opposite sides in the fight for Japan's future. Even Sondheim's complex musical scenes benefit from this production's intimacy, like "Someone in a Tree," in which negotiations between the Americans and Japanese are witnessed by ordinary bystanders who recall what it means to be there when history is made: "If I weren't, who's to say / Things would happen here the way that they happened here?"
Pacific Overtures largely succeeds at incorporating Japanese theatrical and musical styles into the American musical theater form. Some songs emulate the clean, enigmatic nature of haiku, like Kayama and Manjiro's interplay as they trade off-the-cuff "Poems": "Rain glistening / On the silver birch / Like my lady's tears." But Sondheim's penchant for showmanship is firmly on display, too, from the counterpoint of "Please Hello" as admirals start pouring in from assorted Western nations, to the clever wordplay of "Chrysanthemum Tea," where days pass as the Shogun hesitates to respond to Perry's awaiting fleet. A traditional fan dance by Kayama's wife Tamate, who must face the possibility his mission will not succeed, is later superseded by Commodore Perry's startling act one closer, a brashly American cakewalk that leaves no doubt of his ultimate intentions.
Forty years later, the limits of the authors' perspective are also apparent. The epilogue touts Japan's place as a modern world economic power, but the flash-forward from 1853 to contemporary times is too sudden and oblique without reckoning with what happened between. There's no mention of World War II, for instance. The way the writers depict women throughout the piece also feels myopic, especially with the Lyric's mixed-gender cast. (The initial Broadway staging featured an all-male cast in the traditional kabuki style.) There are only a few songs that feature female characters: one is a quartet of prostitutes soliciting business from the Americans, and another finds three randy British sailors bartering for sexual favors with a reluctant young girl. Veloudos has wisely cast Lisa Yuen as our sardonic Reciter for the evening, offering some balance to the show's largely voiceless look at its women.
On the musical front, there are many standout moments to savor, in particular the lovely duets of Karina Wen and Elaine Hom ("There Is No Other Way") and Carl Hsu and Sam Hamashima (the aforementioned "Poems"). A small orchestra led by Jonathan Goldberg suits the minimalist mise en scène without sacrificing the clean elegance of Sondheim's score. Some cast members aren't entirely comfortable with the music, whether it's awkward keys or patter lyrics that race by too quickly. But the eleven-person ensemble capably shifts personas at the drop of a hat, portraying a complex tapestry of characters from all ranks of Japanese society. A few characterizations worth noting: Wen's easy shift from the nasal whine of the Shogun's wife to the clear-eyed boy watching history from a tree; Alexander Holden's haughty Russian admiral with a booming basso voice ("Don't touch the coat!"); and Gary Thomas Ng's delightful palace matriarch who sings of poisoning the Shogun through a chipper smile.
Pacific Overtures makes a point of honoring elements of Japanese cultureits music, its poetryaltered by its forced relationship with the West. At first, the show can feel distancing, like we're in for a lecture. But there's a bittersweet longing that slowly reveals itself, for the customs shed and lives lost on the road to Japan's inevitable modernization. As we hear in "Someone in a Tree," change comes moment by moment, person by person: "It's the ripple, not the sea / That is happening." Lyric Stage's elegant production makes the case for the small stories at the heart of Sondheim and Weidman's reckoning with history.
Pacific Overtures, through June 16, 2019, at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at lyricstage.com, by phone at 617-585-5678, or in person at the Lyric Stage box office.
Cast: Kai Chao, Sam Hamashima, Alexander Holden, Elaine Hom, Carl Hsu, Brandon Milardo, Gary Thomas Ng, Jeff Song, Karina Wen, Micheline Wu