Pacific Overtures

| May 6, 2017

Pacific Overtures

Classic Stage Company, NYC, April 29, 2017

Reviewed by Marilyn Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Joan Marcus

(L-R) Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei, Marc Oka, Thom Sesma

The anticipated revival of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman masterwork Pacific Overtures at the Classic Stage Company (CSC) is a certified winner. This bold reworking by CSC Artistic Director John Doyle follows his natural bent for simplicity and his belief in “that which is essential.” Director Doyle has smartly stripped the work (with the blessing of its two authors), editing and combining two acts into one. Even with cutting a major number, “Chrysanthemum Tea,” from the score, this Pacific Overtures communicates the story of the Westernization of Japan with renewed power and significance. Doyle has often been criticized for his minimalism, but here it works to amazing advantage.

When the original debuted in 1976 at the Winter Garden Theatre, the production was sumptuous, with 31 performers, a full orchestra, and the impossibly charismatic and commanding Japanese actor, Mako, as the Reciter. The reviews were mixed; subsequent productions have likewise received various praises and pans, but that’s not surprising. Pacific Overtures is, when all is said and done, an ultra-sophisticated piece of theater. It’s all too easy for a production of this complex work to get bogged down and self-destruct, which makes Doyle’s version all the more remarkable. This Pacific Overtures is a shining example of “less is more.”

Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, Ann Harada

One of the keys to the success of this production lies in its all-encompassing intimacy, both in feel and in the physical playing space. There’s a markedly Japanese sensibility present, with a flowing gracefulness and spareness of aesthetic. The sparse set (designed by Doyle) offers the suggestion of an unfurled scroll—the treaty binding the East to the West. Well-chosen props and bolts of wave-print fabric delicately suggest everything from clothing to tatami matting to the sea. Another of Doyle’s guiding principles is to encourage audiences to engage their imaginations. And so it is with this production, as a mere ten performers, clad in simple, modern dress, artfully, and with sometime Kabuki-esque stylization of ceremony and ritual, engage in storytelling as an at form—that story being the difficult Westernization of Japan in 1853.

The lead of Pacific Overtures, the Reciter, is played by octogenarian George Takei with wit and nuance. He may appear frail at times, but his resonant voice contains the strength of lions. His Reciter is a knowing witness to history, an Elder with chops. The story of Commodore Perry’s determined penetration of the East is told from the point of view of the Japanese, especially through the eyes of a samurai, Kayama—played by the excellently compelling Steven Eng—and a fisherman, Manjiro, played by Orville Mendoza with marvelous shadings of emotion. The rest of the ensemble cast—Karl Josef Ko, Marc Oka, Austin Ku, Thom Sesma, Kelvin Moon Loh, Ann Harada, and Megan Masako Haley—are all strong performers who bring superb vocal and acting abilities to the production. From the opening number, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” the platform of this history is indelibly exemplified, with the respectful rendering of an isolationist Japan anchored in its own unchanging social order. As that order is threatened, Sondheim and Weidman’s storytelling powers are nonpareil in depicting the sighting of the American ships (“Four Black Dragons”) to the machinations that ensue to ward off the coming of the “barbarians.” One of the most brilliant creations in Sondheim’s body of work is “Someone in a Tree,” which tells the story of the historic East-West meeting in the treaty house. The song, a memory piece, in which an old man (Sesma) tells what he witnessed from a tree as a young boy (Ku), and in which a warrior (Moon Loh) gives his perspective from being hidden beneath the floor boards, is performed to perfection. Its truth guarantees heart-strings will be pulled in a major way.

Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei,
Marc Oka, Thom Sesma

Pacific Overtures is not without humor. The incursion on the floating island of Japan by the West is hilariously depicted with a Gilbert and Sullivan parody, “Please Hello.” The parade of American, British, Dutch, Russian, and French admirals attempting to intrude themselves on the Japanese is chock full of stereotype and plain fun. Harada as the French admiral is especially funny, as she is as the Madam, preparing her brothel “girls” to entertain foreigners in “Welcome to Kanagawa.” Male cast members, wielding fans, play their parts to the hilt, with laugh-inducing self-consciousness. Yet there’s a dark turn in Pacific Overtures. Kayama, the samurai, who has become exalted in position, becomes Westernized (“Bowler Hat”), while his friend, Manjiro, who had advocated the ways of the West, becomes increasingly more nationalistic, with tragic results. In the end there is murder, insurrection, and bloody infighting until the Emperor, once a powerless figurehead, seizes real power.

Megan Masako Haley

Herein lies the weak link of Pacific Overtures, which even Doyle has failed to address. As the Emperor ascends, he vows that Japan will modernize itself. “There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago” he says. “Welcome to Japan.” In an abrupt switch, “Next!” catapults the story into the modern era of pacifist Japan, recounting a litany of technological innovation. Artistically, the transition is jarring, a fault of the musical’s structure. But Doyle has a last word, a statement of his own, which calls on each audience member to use his/her imagination. His Pacific Overtures ends with one of the characters possessing a gun and the choice to use it or not. It’s lying on the floor, near an American flag. The implications are many—but no definitive answers are given.

The gorgeous music of Pacific Overtures—orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick—is played by nine musicians, led by Musical Director Greg Jarrett. Music Supervisor is Rob Berman. Additional material is by Hugh Wheeler. Costume design is by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Jane Cox, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, and hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas.

The Classic Stage Company is located at 136 East 13th Street. (212) 352-3101, www.classicstage.org.

The production has announced an extension; it will continue through June 18.

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Category: Musical Theatre Reviews, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Reviews, Off-Broadway Reviews, Regional

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