Most theater musicologists would probably concur that the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical "Pacific Overtures" is a stunning if also vexing example of the concept musical. The most avid of Sondheim’s fans could also offer many compelling reasons why "Pacific Overtures," above all his other shows including "Follies," is the composer’s most conceptually daring.
In a hardly daring but certainly carefully considered move, the Roundabout Theater engaged Japanese director Amon Miyamoto to re-stage and choreograph this nevertheless problematic episodic pageant. Considering the polarity of its East-meets-West theme, this production is, in turn, vivid and dull, stimulating and enervating, classy and trashy, but above all else musically brilliant and challenging.
As performed by an all-Asian cast, the story of the opening up of a feudal Japanese society in 1853 to the trade-seeking American Commodore Perry is presented within intricately structured scenes that propel the action with the help of a narrator, undertaken with audacious constraint by B. D. Wong.
Through the maze of major and minor characters that populate this history-based story, the United States and Japan remain the chief protagonists. This emphasis does not help to sustain our interest in individuals who come and go, pose and sing, live and die, without eliciting much empathy. The sole exception is the suicide of Kayama’s wife Tamate (Yoko Fumoto). But even that seems like a gratuitously offered "Madama Butterfly" moment rather than a scene that emerges out of a dramatic conflict.
A more engaging scene is "Pretty Lady," in which the leering British sailors are disturbingly propelled toward attempted rape. Michael K. Lee, as Kayama, the young man who rises in authority to governor, and Paolo Montalban, as Manjiro, the fisherman/thief who becomes an embittered samurai-trained rebel and Kayama’s adversary, give the most striking portrayals. Also bringing authority to his role is Sab Shimono, as the increasingly dismayed Lord Abe. One major issue is the lack of clarity in the lyrics making the words too often unintelligible except to those familiar with the text.
That Miyamoto has stamped this historical saga with a restraint and a conscientious flair that acknowledges both the Oriental and Occidental theatrical traditions is an achievement that is not without its pitfalls. His concept was initially seen (but not by me) in a Japanese language version presented as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002. By evoking more of the accessible Noh theatrical tradition rather than the more highly stylized Kabuki (used in the original Broadway production), Miyamoto has carved a clearer path through Weidman’s emotionally vacant plot, much of it dense with secondary characters and subplots.
Miyamoto’s choreography, however, will strike Broadway sophisticates as naively retro. But he has done a lot to insure that the fusion of American and Japanese theatrical traditions and temperaments are not viewed as a compromise but rather as a carefully considered conceit.
Not lost in this production, specifically through the use of grotesquely caricatured masks on the Americans, commonly referred to as "barbarians," is the fearsomely condescending American attitude that personifies these tall and imposing Imperialists bent on bringing Japan out of its sacredly administered isolation. In the light of current events, it is impossible not to consider and have serve as a reminder, however regretfully, that there is hardly an insular sovereign nation left in the world that is not being seduced by the powers that promote globalization and industrialization.
Above all the ceremonial pageantry and pretensions, the musical boasts a remarkable Sondheim score that evokes age-old mystical simplicity with new age conceptual wit. I cannot remember whatever it was that prevented me from seeing the original Broadway production in 1976. But a more intimately conceived Off-Broadway production in 1984 introduced me to the musical’s inherent glories without reference to any of its possibly lost virtues or failings.
Weidman’s book is especially clever in its anecdotal cohesiveness, and with additional material credited to Hugh Wheeler, will probably be thought of as more vindicated than it was initially. Yet one wonders if the sadness we feel as we watch the Japanese lose their will to resist American determination is actually compounded by the new ending that brings Japan into the modern age and includes an image of the bombing of Hiroshima.
The subtly-hued robes and black uniforms designed by Junko Koshino rest easily on the eyes. Designer Rumi Matsui’s Japanese-temple setting, with its shifting screens, two pools of water (that those in the front orchestra unfortunately won’t see) and a drawbridge that rises and lowers down the center of the orchestra, enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s atmospheric lighting, is effective. The seven-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Sondheim’s loyal colleague Paul Gemignani, fulfills the demands of the Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, providing a neat showcase for the lute and exotic percussive instruments.
In many ways, the simplified orchestrations help us appreciate Sondheim’s score, a perfect example of this musical artist’s lyrical technique and musical ingenuity. Except for "Welcome to Kanegawa," a vulgar song and a no less than horrifying drag exhibition by the town "Madam and Girls," other songs such as "The Advantages of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea," "Four Black Dragons," "A Bowler Hat," and "Chrysanthemum Tea," wittily convey a cultural heritage more precisely than a hundred years of scholarly historical documenting. This then is a maddening mixture of the pretentious and the sublime that won’t necessarily gain new converts but will more than satisfy the already initiated.
"Pacific Overtures," through Sunday, January 30, Roundabout Theater Production at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $36.25 to $91.25. 212-719-1300.
The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You won’t feel cheated; HH Maybe you should have stayed home; H Don’t blame us.
All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. Previews begin February 20.
Avenue Q, HHHH Golden Theater, 252 West 45.
Beauty and the Beast, HHH Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Broadway & 46.
Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44.
Brooklyn the Musical, H Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45.
Brooklyn Boy, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47. Previews.
Chicago, HHH Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42. Opens March 27.
Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, Music Box Theater.
Democracy, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45. Previews begin January 31.
Fiddler on the Roof, HH Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45. Harvey Fierstein plays Tevye through March 27.
Gem of the Ocean, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48.
Good Vibrations, Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49. Previews.
Hairspray, HHH Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52.
La Cage Aux Folles, Marquis Theater, Broadway and West 46.
Little Women, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52.
Mamma Mia!, HHH Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway.
Movin’ Out, HHH Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46.
Rent, HHHH Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41.
Spamalot, Shubert Theater, 225 West 44. Previews begin February 14.
Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45. Previews begin April 4.
The Glass Menagerie, Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47. Previews begin February 24.
The Lion King, HHHH New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway and 42.
The Phantom of the Opera, HHH Majestic Theater, 247 West 44.
The Producers, HHH St. James Theater, 246 West 44.
The Rivals, Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65. Closing January 30.
Twelve Angry Men, HH American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42.
Whoopi, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45. Through January 30.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48. Previews begin March 12.
Wicked HHH Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51.
Wonderful Town, HHH Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45. Closes January 30.
A Number, NY Theater Workshop, 79 East 4. Through February 13.
After the Ball, Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22. Through January 30.
A Second Hand Memory, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20.
Belle Epoque, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65.
Blue Man Group, HHHH Astor Place, 434 Lafayette, 212-254-4370.
Bug, Barrow Street Theater at 7 Avenue.
Cell Phones, The Annex Theater, 74 A East 4. 212-475-7710.
Cookin’, HH Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.
Counsellor-At-Law, Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46. 212-868-4444.
Dessa Rose, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 WEst 65.
Doubt, New York City Center Stage, 131 West 55.
Falling Off Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42.
Fat Pig, Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher Street.
Forbidden Broadway Special Victims Unit, HHHH Douglas Fairbanks Theater, 432 West 42.
Hurlyburly, Theater Row, 410 West 42.
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, HH Westside Theater, 407 West 43.
Jewtopia, HH Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd.
Lone Star Love, John Houseman Theater, 450 West 42.
Menopause, the Musical, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91, 212-831-2000.
Modern Orthodox, Dodger Stages, 340 West 50.
Musical of Musicals, Dodger Stages, 350 West 50. Previews begin February 2.
Newsical, Upstairs at Studio 54, 254 West 54.
Nine Parts of Desire, MET, 55 Mercer.
Pyretown, Urban Stages, 259 West 30, 212-868-4444. Opens January 29.
Slava’s Snowshow, HH Union Square Theater, 100 East 17.
Souvenir, York Theater, 619 Lexington.
Stomp, HHHH Orpheum Theater, Second Avenue at 8.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43.
The Baltimore Waltz, Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42.
Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding HHH St. Luke’s Church, 308 West 46.
Under the Bridge, Zipper Theater, 336 West 37.
We’re Still Hot, St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46.
White Chocolate, Century Center, 111 East 15.
Who is Floyd Stearn?, 47th Street Theater, 304 West 47.
Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.
For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music, and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS same-day, half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily, 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees. Cash or Travelers Checks only; no credit cards. Visit TKTS at www.tdf.org.