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Theatre in Review: Pacific Overtures (Classic Stage Company)

George Takei. Photo: Joan Marcus

"One must accommodate the times/As one lives them..." So sings Kayama, one of the many whose lives are derailed by history in this sleek, marvelously lucid revival. Even among Stephen Sondheim fanatics, Pacific Overtures is more admired than loved, for reasons that are eminently understandable. Set in 1853, it details how Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the West -- an event without which there would be no Sony products, Toyota cars, sushi restaurants, or Godzilla films -- or Hiroshima and Nagasaki in rubble. It's not a subject that sings, is it?

That's what everyone thought in 1975, when Harold Prince optioned a play by a history student named John Weidman, bringing on Sondheim to fill it with songs. Prince came up with a challenging, borderline-bizarre concept: A modern Japanese troupe of actors, using the techniques of Kabuki theatre, put on their version of a Broadway musical dealing with the Westernization of their country. Whether all this came through in the original production -- which, by all accounts, featured gorgeous scenery by Boris Aronson, costumes by Florence Klotz, and lighting by Tharon Musser -- is a matter of debate. Critics were divided; audiences didn't flock to the box office. Only Prince could have opened such an abstract, avant-garde piece at the Winter Garden Theatre, of all places, in hopes of a long commercial run. Certainly, after Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, its 193-performance run was a disappointment.

Still, perhaps because the original cast album made such a brilliant case for the score, Pacific Overtures never really went away. A 1984 staging at the York Theatre Company was praised by Frank Rich for its pleasing simplicity; then again, a 2004 Broadway revival was something of a disaster, thanks to a blocky, overcomplicated direction that made the action hard to follow. John Doyle's new production at CSC decisively makes the argument for a clear, direct approach. Doyle also designed the set, an enormous sheet of rice paper which, unrolled, bisects the theatre, leaving the audience seated on two sides. The Kabuki concept has largely been done away with: The cast members are dressed in contemporary clothing; occasionally, when playing important characters, they are draped in cloths bearing a Japanese sea motif. As it happens, these are all the adornments needed for this sweeping story of the fate of a nation.

Weidman's book (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) takes a wide-angle view of historical events. There are two more-or-less main characters: Manjiro, a fisherman, who, having spent years in Massachusetts, returns with the news that four American warships have arrived and are waiting in Okinawa harbor for an official greeting, and Kayama, a minor samurai who has been assigned the impossible task of dealing with these unwelcome interlopers. The men's lives will intersect, with all sorts of unintended consequences; even so, they drop out of the action for long periods of time. Pacific Overtures is a musical chronicle play, a series of scenes that detail the implacable march of history, as the US, and then most of Europe, rushes Japan's doors, forcing them open for trade and the inevitable cultural appropriations that follow.

It's an unusual way of writing a musical, and at times is seems like a series of set pieces. But what stunning set pieces! Sondheim's lyrics range from the formal rigor and emotional restraint of haikus to elaborate comic tongue-twisters that would have left W. S. Gilbert faint with admiration; much of his music has a distinctive, Asian-inflected voice, but he also pulls off some of his most assured acts of parody. The rumbling undertone of "Four Black Dragons" convincingly conveys the sheer panic of Japanese citizens confronted with Western ships belching cannon fire. In "Poems," Kayama and Manjiro pass the time on a journey trading poems, the former using traditional Japanese imagery and the latter drawing on his experiences on the streets of Boston. In "Welcome to Kanagawa," a resourceful madam pulls together her greenest recruits to make some fast cash off these invaders.

Pacific Overtures also contains what are arguably two of the most brilliant sequences in any Sondheim musical. "Please Hello" traces the aftermath of the first Japanese treaty with the US, as the country is subsequently invaded by diplomats from England, the Netherlands, Russia, and France, all seeking their slice of the economic pie. Each part is written in a distinct style: John Philip Sousa for the American, Gilbert and Sullivan for the Englishman, a Volga-Boatman dirge for the Russian, a whiff of Offenbach for the Frenchman. All five musical lines eventually collide, producing pure musical madness, an effective depiction of the chaos that afflicts Lord Abe, the Japanese representative, as he struggles to meet their competing demands.

One of the purest distillations of Sondheim's genius is "Someone in a Tree." In it, the signing of the US-Japanese treaty -- an event for which there is no record -- is recounted by an old man, who, as a boy, witnessed the event while seated in a nearby tree; providing a counter-narrative is the soldier who was hidden underneath the floorboards. Both accounts are filled with trivial details that reveal little -- as the boy sings, "I'm a fragment of the day" -- yet are the only evidence of a moment that changed the world. In some of his most supple, beautiful lyrics ("It's the pebble, not the stream/It's the ripple not the sea/Not the building, but the beam/Not the garden, but the stone"), Sondheim conveys history as most of us experience it: the subterranean shifting of fundamental realities, taking place just outside of view.

Doyle has made some deep cuts to the text. I regret the loss of "Chrysanthemum Tree," a blackly comic number with wickedly witty lyrics, in which a diffident shogun, unable to take action, is slowly poisoned to death by his mother. Also gone is "The Lion Dance," the first-act closer in which Commodore Perry celebrates his triumph. Still, there's no question that this version of the text, which runs a brisk ninety minutes, benefits from a strong dramatic line, with fewer distractions from the stories of Manjiro and Kayama.

Doyle has also assembled a superb cast. A 1976 Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker features Prince discussing the difficulties of recasting Pacific Overtures, the implication being that Asian actors with musical theatre skills were few and far between. Those days are long gone, and everyone in Doyle's vocally gifted cast blends into a seamless ensemble. George Takei, continuing his welcome return to the New York theatre, presides over the action with gravity as the Reciter, the evening's narrator. Steven Eng is a marvelous Kayama. He finds the undertow of emotion in "There is No Other Way," a delicate, deeply restrained musical conversation with his wife (nicely played by Kimberly Immanuel, the understudy, at the performance I attended) as he heads off on a mission that he fears will end in death. Later, in "A Bowler Hat," a sadder, wiser Kayama, weighed down by the demands of government, seems to age in full view. Orville Mendoza's Manjiro effectively provides a counterpoint to Kayama's story, beginning as a deeply Westernized stranger in his own land and gradually turning into an isolationist samurai. As that canny madam, Ann Harada knows exactly how to handle some of the score's wittiest lyrics. ("So with all my flowers disappearing in alarm/ I've been reduced to commandeering from the farm/But with appropriate veneering/Even green wood has its charm.")

The rest of the design is in the same spirit as Doyle's simple, yet strong, scenic concept. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are attractive and inventive in their use of ceremonial cloths. Jane Cox's lighting skillfully mixes cool white washes with bursts of saturated red when the action turns violent. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is so subtly achieved you might not think the show is amplified at all. He is aided in this by Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, which, scored for only nine musicians, retain the magic of his work on the original production.

The cuts Doyle has made to the show arguably provide a stronger, more direct line to the finale, "Next," in which the action leaps ahead to modern Japan, a country so transformed that, in some ways, it has outpaced the foreigners who came calling in another century. The song's driving rhythms, unexpected pauses, and terse, ambivalent lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a jittery modern Japan. ("Never mind a small disaster/Who's the stronger, who's the faster?/Let the pupil show the master/Next!") Doyle has given us a Pacific Overtures that is both delicate and tough-minded, a tensile thing of beauty that may at last find a place among Sondheim's major works. -- David Barbour

(5 May 2017)

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