Pacific Overtures: Up ‘Next’, A Japanese Vantage Point
Sondheim wrote in his fascinating (and time sucking) book, ‘Finishing the Hat‘, about a Japanese screen he saw one afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. It was a three panel work of art that was more about what was omitted than what was depicted, inspiring Sondheim to attempt the same with the 1976 musical, Pacific Overtures. The adage about “Less is More” was incorporated not just by Sondheim in the writing of this beautiful but slightly off-putting musical, but in John Doyle’s presentation of this tale. Doyle, the infamous director of the scaled down musical revivals recently seen on Broadway (The Color Purple, Sweeney Todd, Company) is at it again, simplifying another one of Sondheim’s shows (music/lyrics: Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, two of his shows currently on stage in NYC) at Classic Stage Company. Just like he did a few years back with Sondheim’s dark and obscure classic, Passion, he’s whittled down the space inside this small East Village theater and has come out with a distant but thoughtful tale, much like the isolated Japan, being dragged into the western culture, for better or worse. Designing the stage in an attempt to bring focus on the simple story and the loveliness of the music, he brings it back to the basics, just like the screen that inspired Sondheim to write what he called his most “unadorned” and “lean lyrics”. That leanness is keenly apparent from the moment we enter and see the white runway that is the stage.
It’s a fascinating slice of history centered around ancient Japan, and the slow integration of that island and culture into the world’s market place. Custom and old protective law for centuries forbid any foreigner to set foot on the land of the island, but when a fisherman, Manjiro, played solidly by Orville Mendoza (CSC’s Passion) who was lost at sea, and rescued by an American ship, arrives back on the sacred Japanese soil with news of American ships approaching, the Shogun and his Councilors must decide how to deal with the world coming to their doorstep. It’s a history play, set to music, about the the difficult westernization of Japan told from the point of view of the Japanese, and in particular, on the lives of two friends caught in the charge. Within that friendship is the emotional heart of this story, and the one component that pulls us in.
It’s 1853 Japan, and Commodore Matthew Perry is sailing a fleet of ships towards this country with the goal to open trade relations at any cost. Enlisted to solve the doom that is approaching is a simple and kind young Samari, Kayama, wisely and sweetly portrayed by Steven Eng (Paint Your Wagon). He leaves behind his wife, Tamate, a still and kind Kimberly Immanuel (understudy for Megan Masako Haley) to head out and try to stop the Americans, with the help of the fisherman. Playing a strong voiced teacher/narrator, The Reciter, George Takei (Allegiance) majestically guides us through this unique moment in history, one that is filled with fascinating details and interesting tidbits. But does it make a compelling musical?
One wouldn’t think so. But there is an elegance to the story telling, a lovely culturally pointed design and directing point of view, some beautiful singing, and one can’t deny the Sondheim style. His trademarked sound is stamped all over this story, and one can’t help but be reminded of other more compelling stories he has told, like Into the Woods and A Little Night Music. His songs are small stories wrapped in a puzzle, telling us history without relating it action by action (much of what I didn’t like about the much loved, Tony nominated Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812). A perfect example is the unique telling of the meeting between the Americans and the Councilors in a treaty house erected solely to receive them, ‘Someone in a Tree“. It is sung by an old man, a wondrous Thom Sesma (Disney’s The Lion King); a warrior, Kelvin Moon Loh (The King and I, Side Show), who hides under the floor in case he is needed; and a boy, Austin Ku (CSC’s Iphigenia in Aulis) to the curious Reciter who wishes more was known about what was said behind those closed doors on that historic day. It’s an interesting take on an event where few details are known, but a compelling re-creation of those who had a glimpse, but didn’t see or hear the whole story. It connects without resonating or being that emotionally deep, which in itself is what could be said about this creative and detailed musical.
Simply dressed in clothes that don’t represent the time period at all, Ann Hould-Ward (The Visit) in a very different approach to other productions, has forgone old Japanese costuming and uses swathes of fabric over simple modern dress to give clues to titles and positions of power. It’s as simple as it comes, just like the lighting design by Jane Cox (Amelie, NYTW’s Othello) and the sound by Dan Moses Schreier (Falsettos) working on the same strong theatrical ideal that inspired Sondheim. Musically, this piece is lovely and moving (orchestrations: Jonathon Tunick; music supervisor: Rob Berman; music director: Greg Jarrett; music coordinator: Seymour Red Press) and the story being told by book writer, John Weidman (Assassins, Road Show), is a fascinating slice of history that fluctuated between ‘America the Great’ and ‘America the Oppressor’. In what is generally the opening number of Act 2 (here Doyle has tightened the piece, wisely, into a one act 90 minute piece suitable to the story), the song ‘Please Hello‘ represents the world at Japan’s doorstep. The countries demand Lord Abe, the First Councilor (Sesma) to the Shogun to sign treaties with each of them, granting various trade alliances. Each country is wonderfully and hilariously represented by an Admiral; the French Admiral, portrayed by the my favorite cast member, Ann Harada (Avenue Q), British Admiral (Ku), Russian Admiral (Moon Loh), American Admiral (Karl Josef Co), and the Dutch Admiral played by Marc Oka (The King and I). Each one showcases the aggressive style of the western world forcing themselves on a country that had tried for centuries to remain disconnected and untangled from these oppressive colonizers. The outside world has come and forced itself on this ancient civilization, and as the story veers off in a dizzying side story of murder and revenge, the end apparently has come to the old ways. My fellow theater companion, who witnessed his first Sondheim show that afternoon, wondered if America was being seen in a positive or negative light in the final moments of this complex show. It’s not so obvious in this production, but the Western world appears to be forcing itself onto the shores of Japan in a violent intrusion; culturally apocalyptic in nature. It’s a disturbing scenario to take in at the end of a slightly detached musical. But leave it to the wonderful Takei to solidify the moment:
“There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago…” the Reciter says, “Welcome to Japan.”