“Pacific Overtures” has docked itself on American stages with surprising frequency in recent years. Three different productions in three years is quite a lot, when the material is Stephen Sondheim’s—some of his more obscure work at that. In 2002, the Japanese Opera director Amon Miyamoto translated Sondheim’s depiction of the history of modern Japan from 1853 to today in a sparsely beautiful revival that came tantalizingly close to definitive. Still, the musical written by an American from the perspective of Japan, has always been difficult to put a finger on. (The 1976 original debuted on Broadway to mixed reviews, most alleging the show’s murky voice was reminiscent of an identity crisis.) Miyamoto set the lyrics in Japanese (with portentously distracting English supertitles) and distilled the Kabuki-like artifice into a Noh style chamber piece. It made sense somehow, this East-cum-West-come-East experiment. When he mounted a new production on the Great White Way last winter, though, employing a cast entirely of Asian Americans, something got lost in translation. It was stripped to a concert version, with a perplexing lack of focus and no real choreography to report on. The Signature Theatre’s new version, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer and Karma Camp, is a thrilling reproduction, rendered in small strokes, but chock-full of ideas and motive power.
A musical about the rape and pillage of Japan by Western civilizations, “Pacific Overtures” condenses a hundred and fifty years of history into two and a half hours. That we can’t always connect emotionally with the central characters—one of whom clings to an evaporating sense of tradition, another whose forced assimilation into a culture imposed onto his own leads to the death of his wife, his ideals and his identity—is a minor problem, mostly credited to a protracted storyline that fails to lend itself to the rubric of the American Musical. Still a think piece, Sondheim’s show, by way of Schaffer and Camp, is as heartfelt as can be hoped for.
“The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” is a traditional (sounding) song built on ascending themes: “The viewing of the moon / The planting of the rice / The painting of the screens / The catching of the fish / Arrange tomorrow to be like today to float.” The company of eleven folded over and over as they wove around bamboo shoots installed across the stage. They froze to imitate Japanese postures as captured on silk screens. Staccato turns and jolts from side to side punctuated Jonathan Tunick’s ravishing orchestrations (which were expertly arranged and performed by Jon Kalbfleisch and his orchestra of seven).
“Welcome to Kanagawa,” a riot of a piece featuring a sexual doyenne schooling her geisha girls on the art of pleasing a man (or more aptly, pleasing a coarse, barbarian), twittered with playfulness and charming fan work by Channez McQuay and the company.
When the production was in speechifying mode (into which, unfortunately, it often finds itself, thanks to a haughty, ashen libretto by John Weidman), Schaeffer and Camp cleverly instructed their actors to sway in place, as can be seen in the anime cartoons, with the protagonists walking in place while the backdrop recedes. This production, as opposed to the Broadway revival, never stops long enough to notice a crack, creak or misstep. When song mode was initiated, it became difficult to notice anything else. To wit: “If the tea the shogun drank will / Serve to keep the shogun tranquil,” is a lyric. “Hello, I come with letters from her majesty Victoria / Who, learning how you’re trading now, sang ‘Hallelujah, Gloria!’ / And sent me to convey to you her positive euphoria / As well as little gifts from Britain’s various emporia,” is as well.
The latter verse comes from “Please Hello!” a summation of the opening of ports along Japan’s borders, letting in Western (America, England, Russia) visitors who overstay their welcome. As verse, it rivals and sends up Gilbert and Sullivan. As a history lesson, it approximates the gamut to the letter. As a dance, with the arrival of the French Ambassador, (”It’s detante, oui, detante, that’s the only thing we want!”) it became a variation on the Can-Can that shook the rafters with bombastic kicking and bonhomie. The invasion still managed to loom large, even in the tiny black box of a theatre at Signature.
The original production featured the great Broadway production designer Boris Aronson’s vision of Commodore Perry’s war ship, a giant Origami beast with fiery eyes and reams of patriotic bunting that slid on and offstage as smoothly as paper, in spite of its scale and the fact that it was populated by eight actors dressed as sailors. In Schaeffer and Camp’s interpretation, Perry and his crew (now truncated to three) are seldom seen and often heard. Their presence is rather suggested as they enter from the audience, which works well enough: the “four black dragons” that the Fisherman and the Thief spot along the horizon are granted new pop-culture shock finesse. Because they are no longer visible to the audience, the hazy, hearsay-embellished augmentations of what war boats might look like from the vantage point of a people who have never before encountered them feel right. And adding to the foreshadowing threat is the sight of the commodore goose-stepping ashore. Finishing up Act One is a further depiction of the west’s seductive, insidious invasion: Commodore Perry engages in the “Lion Dance,” a flurry of front flips and serpentine rolls proved satisfactorily creepy (if a little silly; he was wearing a junky red pipecleaner mask that made him look like a plate of spaghetti had been tossed at his head. Maybe that’s why he was hissing so much.
And the now legendary song “Someone In A Tree” was aural and intellectual sustenance, with its imagery of the human not being able to see or hear things with equal or accurate acumen. And perspective has the power to obscure, inflate and dissolve, according to the lyrics. As a coup de teatre, this one’s a wow. The pontificating “Next,” while a percussive hum dinger, is so loaded with diatribe about Japan’s sneaky, sleeping-beast revenge on the West, it ends up boasting the dramatic pop of a cap gun. No matter. “Pacific Overtures” has always been a gamble, and it doesn’t always work itself out. But thanks to Schaeffer and Camp, Sondheim’s work now has legs. And good ones at that. It climbs to the top of that tree, and shouts from the boughs that it is happening. And what a pleasure and an honor it is to be able to witness.