A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
This remounting of Mr. Miyamoto's 2002 staging (imported by Lincoln Center from Japan), retains the challenging mix of Noh (masked and costumed performers and dancing), Kabuki (men in male and female roles) and American Musical theater (as embodied in the shockingly relevant modern dress finale). However it now features Asian-American actors to eliminate the need for the super titles. It's a perfect follow-up for last season's Roundabout revival of another under appreciated and daring Sondheim musical, Assassins. (review).
Though Pacific Overtures, like Assassins, has had a problematic history (the more opulently mounted 1976 Broadway premiere had more nay than yea sayers among critics, a 1984 Off-Broadway revival fared better), it has a rich and diverse score that's as lyrical as it is sophisticated. Its book, more timely than ever, is written on both a large and intimate canvas. The broader canvas depicts the opening of feudalistic Japan or "the floating kingdom" to trade with the West, initiated in 1853 by the U.S. Navy under Commodore Perry's command. The more intimate sub-plot follows the friendship between Manjiro (Paolo Montalban), a common fisherman made samurai, and Kayama (Michael K. Lee) a minor samurai made governor -- the reversal of their attitudes towards Westernization is embodied in the witty "I Wear a Bowler Hat").
Mr. Miyamoto's Pacific Overtures is, of course, told from the viewpoint of his culture and how it viewed the Americans. Thus, scenic designer Rumi Matsui has transformed Studio 54's center aisle into a drawbridge raised and lowered over the "moat " separating the Japanese from the would-be traders they view as barbarians. People who saw more of a fleet presence in the original Broadway production -- or even the excellent NYU student version done a few yars ago -- may find this drawbridge arrangement somewhat flat. However, to offset it, there's the transformation of Perry into a giant on stilts, wearing a fright mask and a bizarre wig of metallic curls to stunningly, and metaphorically, visualize the barbarian image.
B.D. Wong of M. Butterfly fame is the narrator or Reciter who joins into the action as needed. His singing is so-so, but he's very much engaged and engaging. The choreography, also by Mr. Miyamoto, is minimal, but this doesn't short-change the show, given the rich book (actually too top-heavy until the show gets going) and the score and lyrics which, like a fine wine, have aged well.
At the Saturday evening press performance I attended, there were several substitutions for the actors listed in the program but this only illustrated that this is less a star vehicle than a stellar ensemble that can switch parts when needed without weakening the performances overall; for example, Alan Muraoka did fine with the gender switching parts usually assumed by other actors (the Dutch Admiral and the Merchant), while Rick Edinger ably handled Muraoka's Grandmother role as well as several other parts usually played by Hoon Lee.
The voices are all strong so that the lyrics come across clearly and without the excessively miked sound common to more typical Broadway venues. As in Assassins, which also ran at this venue, the excellent Paul Gemignani helms the small orchestra which is again positioned in two side loges to play Jonathan Tunick's as always superior orchestrations.
If I had to name one show-stopping number, it would undoubtedly be "Someone in a Tree" which recounts the historic meeting between Commodore Perry and Japanese officials through the eyes of the younger and older self of an unwitting witness (Telly Leung is the boy and Alvin Y.F. Ing is his older self). The Reciter and a warrior (Evan D'Angeles) add to this musical memory piece's complexity.
Standout that it is, "Someone in a Tree" is just one highlight. There's also the melodic "Chrysanthemum Tea" in which the Shogun's mother tries to wake him up to the danger sitting on the other side of the moat and the brothel keeper's comic "Welcome to Kanagawa." As already mentioned, "A Bowler Hat" embodies the simple samurai's transformation into a Westernized diplomat which begins with his donning the then fashionable bowler hat. The arrival of the English, French and Dutch to get their share of the new trading opportunities, is captured in the delightfully Gilbert & Sullivan-like "Please, Hello."
The production values dominated by movable wooden panels are comparatively simple but that simplicity, like Junko Koshino's costumes, is fitting and lovely to see. Brian Mac Devitt imbues all with his usual magical lighting skills.
The major problem with this production is the venue. While the nightclub setting fits the last scene, in which Old Japan gives way to a punk rock sensibility, Studio 54 is not an ideal atmosphere for a serious musical. It's also not ideally configured for this show which I think works best with the audience surrounding the stage. Depending on where you sit, you are likely to miss either the entrance of Perry and his aides (if you're sitting upstairs) or the unfurling of the American flag on the ceiling (in certain sections of the orchestra).
If your taste runs to musicals with big stars rather than an ensemble cast, librettos about love rather than political events, and more spectacle-oriented staging, Pacific Overtures may not satisfy on all counts. Even so, you'll have to look long and hard for a show that's more intelligent and original.
Pacific Overtures --all male production, London
Pacific Overture -- all male production, Philadelphia
Pacific Overtures -- imported from Japan and spoken and sung in Japanese at Lincoln Center
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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