Pacific Overtures continues at Classic Stage Company, New York until 18 June.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
If there’s such a thing as minimalist grandeur, director John Doyle achieves it with his rendering of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures.
Doyle is capping his first season as artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company with this luminous if somewhat too-truncated revival. It once again demonstrates his affinity for scaling down production accoutrements while maintaining or revving up the visceral impact of Sondheim’s work.
Originally debuting on Broadway in 1976, Pacific Overtures deals with the mid-19th century commercial and cultural intrusion of the United States and other Western powers into the long-isolated island empire of Japan.
It’s pretty esoteric material for a Broadway musical, but Weidman’s storytelling (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) gives it a human touch.
It centres on a lowly samurai, Kayama, who rises up the country’s political ladder because of his ability to deal with the foreigners.
As for Sondheim’s score, with its Asian percussive notations set against lilting melodic lines, it has some of his most sophisticated music and wittiest, most incisive lyrics.
CSC’s revival marks the fourth major New York outing for the piece. It maintains a ceremonial feel, as in the formal entry of the players and their bowing to the audience.
Doyle’s simple but evocative set design has the look of a white scroll unrolling onto a long platform situated in the middle of the theatre. The audience sits on either side of the platform, and the sense of ritual carries through in much of the staging.
Fans and parasols make their appearance, and some actors carry on lengths of silky material, unfolded at times to add colour to the set or draped to suggest obis or kimonos. The basic costuming, however, is contemporary and very casual, including open collars, T-shirts and jeans.
The one exception is the suit, tie and robe worn by The Reciter, the show’s narrator, played with a benevolent authority by George Takei.
Takei, widely known for his role as Mr. Sulu in the Star Trek television series and films, is the featured name in the 10-person cast, but the talent throughout the company is impressive, creating one grand musical highlight after another, accompanied by the nine-piece orchestra.
Steven Eng is totally engaging as Kayama, bringing vocal lustre and strength to such numbers as ‘Poems’ – shared with Orville Mendoza, as Kayama’s colleague Manjiro – and the brilliant ‘A Bowler Hat’, which traces Kayama’s piece-by-piece transformation to Western mode and manners.
‘Someone in a Tree’, in which an old man describes how as a boy he was able to spy on a meeting between the Japanese councillors and the American Commodore Perry, is thrillingly performed by Thom Sesma as the old man, Austin Ku as his younger self, and Kelvin Moon Loh as a warrior in hiding to protect, if need be, the councillors.
As in other numbers, Takei’s Reciter adds interpolations. Sondheim writes in his book Finishing the Hat that this is the song he “often proffers” when asked to name his favourite among those he’s written. This rendering should make him quite happy.
The liveliest, most traditional musical comedy moment in the show comes with ‘Please Hello’, in which admirals from five different countries tout their trade pacts, each in their own distinctive way.
Ku handles in nimble fashion the Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter of the Brit, while Ann Harada finds delicious comedy in playing the jaunty French admiral.
In contrast, there is the threatening intensity of ‘Four Black Dragons’, when American ships are spotted in the harbour, a number led by Karl Josef Co and Marc Oka.
As Kayama’s wife, Megan Masako Haley, often sitting quietly in the midst of the action, lends a sense of both calm and vulnerability through these expertly wrought shifts in mood.
There are times when the condensation of the script – or maybe it’s the script itself – makes the narrative challenging to follow, but the drift is always there.
The show, which runs some 90 minutes with no intermission, includes almost all of the original score. Most notable among the missing numbers is ‘Chrysanthemum Tea’.
Toward the end of the show, the proceedings make a leap into the present with the number ‘Next’, citing in poetic fashion the enduring and mixed effects that Western culture has had on Japan.
This number in the past contained shout-outs to the various commercial accomplishments of 20th century Japan. They helped build the song to a climax. Now these shout-outs have been dropped. Japan’s role in global commerce has seen some bumpy times in recent years, but without that climactic build, the number and the show comes to a strangely abrupt ending.
It’s possible, too, that my hopeful expectation that this entrancing show would simply last longer made the finish seem so unkind.
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