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A CurtainUp Review
Pacific Overtures

Her Majesty considers the arrangements to be tentative
Until we ship a proper diplomatic representative.
We don't forsee that you will be the least bit argumentative
So please ignore the man-of-war we brought as a preventative
—lyric by the British Ambassador from sardonic Gilbert & Sullivan-ish "Please Hello" in which he along with the Dutch, French and Russians join the imperialistic moves of the U.S. The Reciter dismissed the sound of an explosion in the very near distance with "Yes, please ignore the man-of-war/ That's anchored rather near the shore,/ It's nothing but a metaphor/That acts as a preventative.
Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei, Marc Oka, and Thom Sesma. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
John Doyle made his reputation in this country with his inventive interpretations of under-appreciated Stephen Sondheim musicals — Company and Sweeney Todd on Broadway, and Passion at Classic Stage where he's now artistic director.

Now he's taken a fresh look at the fact-based story of how the U.S. Navy sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in 1853 to open up trade relations, no matter what it took, and the parallel tale of a low-level samurai and a fisherman who are caught up in the Western world's success in bringing this still feudal country out of its let's-stay-simple-and-isolated way of life.

The ten cast members of Doyle's re-conceived Pacific Overtures are not doing instrumentalist/performer double duty per the staging device he pioneered. However, it's drastically pared down to 90 minutes (from the more usual 2 1/2 hours) and aims to draw the audience in by relying on the pungent lyrics and the viewer's imagination rather than lavish production values. The emphasis is on the political aspects of this complex musical about a long ago case history of diplomacy and cultural conflict and its long-term ripple effects give this Pacific Overtures an up-to-date socially relevant feel.

For theater goers willing to inded put their imaginations to work this streamlined production will be a rewarding experience. This will also be the case for the purists among Sondheim's legion of devoted fans; that's provided they park their quibbles about trims that include the popular "Chrysanthemum Tea" at the door and allow themselves to enjoy this streamlined presentation— as they should.

After all, why shouldn't everyone approach this production with an open mind if Mr. Sondheim approved the cuts and changes needed to whittle his show into a single act and accommodate Mr. Doyle's directing style, which he in fact did according to an article by Carol Rocamora in this month's issue of the Theatre Communication Group's American Theater.

For an idea of just what Doyle's spare approach is all about, take a look at the above photo of George Takei, who plays The Reciter, and members of the ensemble. This is not a promotional rehearsal photo in which the actors still in their street clothes holds up the fans they'll be using for the "Welcome to Kanagawa" number. It's an actual scene from the production. Except for an occasional added Obi waistband, what you see the actors in that picture wear is pretty much what you get in this minimalist production. For those of us scribblers who've been rushing from opening to opening in the usual awards season crush, the abundance of splashy productions in which the scenery at times upstaging the story and performers (as in Anastasia and Groundhog Day ), Mr. Doyle's less is more approach is a refreshing change.

Of course, with its serious subject matter, even the spectacularly staged 1976 Broadway premiere was never a crowd-pleasing hit like Hello, Dolly! currently breaking box office for the Shubert Organization. It exited the Winter Garden after just 193 performances. A Broadway-ized 2004 English language version of an all Japanese production closed even faster, after just 69 performances.

Clearly the time is ripe for Mr. Doyle to take a crack at giving us a Pacific Overture that does full justice to the scintillating score while it simplifies and clarifies the narrative. To do so he has, like the director of the all-Japanese and English language Broadway follow-up by the Roundabout Company, opted for the measured movements and style of traditional Japanese theater, but without any Broadway-ized pizzazz and a much smaller cast.

While the actors's role switching is for the most part easy to follow, it is occasionally confusing; especially in the case of Megan Masako Haley who, when not the samurai Kamaia's wife, remains on stage as sort of an all-purpose listener. Steven Eng and Orville Mendoza stick to the roles of Kamaia (Eng) the low-level samurai, and Manjiro (Mendoza) the fisherman who end up as high level negotiators to keep the "barbarians" from landing.

George Takei (Star Trek's Mr. Sulu) is the only cast member with an instantly recognizable name which no doubt hasn't hurt the show's selling enough tickets to extend before its official opening. His role as the Reciter has been downsized so that spoken and sung words usually delivered by his narrating character are sung by the more vocally powerful Thom Sesma's Lord Abe. Takei brings a nicely understated dignity to this now fairly minor part.

Songs and partial lyrics, besides often being reassigned in the interest of clarity and condensation, tend to meld into each other as in an opera. This helps to present a complete but compact narrative. It's probably why the program doesn't include a song list (You can check out who sang what and when at the end of my 2004 review here ).

Simple as Doyle's approach is, this production did involve reconfiguring the entire Classic Stage space, to seat the audience on both sides of a center runway. One of the usual side seating areas has been cleared for director and keyboard player Greg Jarrett and eight other superb musicians to play the hit parade of songs splendidly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick. This configuration does require the actors to do a lot of moving around to avoid the audience seeing them mostly in profile, but then it does make room for that wonderful orchestra.

That musical hit parade begins with "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" which establishes that the country is being ruled by Lord Abe (Thom Sesma) rather than the young Emperor and that there's a revolt brewing by the Lords further South.

The players use the aisles to enter the raised runway stage from each of its short ends. The entryway opposite the orchestra features a tall flag-like contraption imprinted with Japanese lettering. That empty white playing area turns delightfully colorful during the unfurling of the various admirals' flags in the sardonic, Gilbert and Sullivan-ish "Please Hello!" that leads to Lord Abe's capitulation to the self-serving promises to make Japan a better place by embracing a more modern economy.

Other standout numbers includes "Welcome to Kanagawa in which the excellent Ann Harada instructs her prostitutes on how to please the arriving foreigners. . . "Pretty Lady" and "Someone in a Tree" which creates a make-belief forest courtesy of an actor scattering leaf-like scraps of paper all around.

My own favorite Pacific Overtures song is the witty "I Wear A Bowler Hat" in which Kayama, the samurai turned diplomat shows himself ready to put feudal Japan behind him and to step into the modern world: "They Send Me Wine/The House Is Far Too Grand/. I've Bought A New Umbrella Stand/Today I Visited The Church Beside The Shrine."

I could go on but you get the idea. Newbies to the show won't miss any of the omitted items. Loyalists to the original, may not approve deletions like the much loved "Chrysanthemum Tea" or the way the prophetic "Next" has been trimmed, but there's no denying that this is a musically rich, intriguing experience, well worth a trip to the Classic Stage.

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Pacific Overtures
Book By John Weidman
Music And Lyrics By Stephen Sondheim
Additional Material By Hugh Wheeler
Directed And Designed By John Doyle
Cast: Karl Josef Co (Fisherman, American Admiral, First Sailor), Steven Eng (Kayama), Megan Masako Haley (Tamate), Ann Harada (Madam, French Admiral), Austin Ku (Boy, Britsh Admiral, Third Sailor), Kelvin Moon Loh (Warrior, Russian Admiral, Second Sailor), Orville Mendoza (Manjiro), Marc Oka (Thief, Dutch Admiral), Thom Sesma (Lord Abe, Old Man), George Takei (The Reciter), All other roles by Ensemble
Music Supervisor: Rob Berman
Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Costume Design: Ann Hould Ward
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair and Makeup: J. Jared Janas
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music Supervisor: Rob Berman
Musical Director: Greg Jarrett
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Stage Manager: Melanie J. Lisby
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Classic Stage 136 East 13th
From 4/06/17; opening 5/04/17; closing 6/18/17
Tuesday through Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/02/17 press preview

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