By Michael Hillyer
Pacific Overtures, originally mounted on Broadway in 1976 by Harold Prince as a full-blown Kabuki spectacle, opened at the time to mixed critical reception in the press and closed after about six months, dividing the theatre world forever into those who saw it, and those who didn’t. For the curious on either side of that divide, The Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street is now offering Off-Broadway audiences a rare opportunity to view Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Weidman’s Pacific Overtures, in a scaled-down version directed by John Doyle that runs through June 18th.
Performed without intermission over the course of ninety minutes, this truncation of the original production has shed an hour off the running time by reducing subplot diversions and by cutting some songs. Students of the score will miss “Chrysanthemum Tea” and “March To The Treaty House,” among others, but the result is to streamline the material so that it more directly tells its story of the Westernization of Japan after the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853. Told from the viewpoint of the various people of Japan (police chief, thief, old man, young boy, a fisherman) the arrival of the American Perry marks the beginning of the end for feudal Japan, as it opens it shores to barbarians (visitors) for the first time in hundreds of years. Soon, The Floating Kingdom is inundated with trade agreements, not only from the Americans, but the British, French, Danish, and Russians as well. By the end of the play, at the order of the emperor, Japan has shrugged off her caste system, with its shogun and his lords and samurai warriors, in an effort to compete in the world market, and embraced the Western culture it once disdained. We go from samurai swords to guns, from total isolation to an attempt at worldwide domination, in an hour and a half. To be fair, and for a sense of how quickly Japan adapted in real time, the arrival of Commodore Perry at Uraga preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor by less than ninety years.
If this is beginning to sound like a history lesson, that would correctly reflect the tone of the play, which is somewhat pedantic, and though Japan goes through many changes, little happens on the stage. Much is narrated. The resulting evening is a little dull, and the unfamiliar score, while capable of rendering up some gems, like “Pretty Lady” and the clever “Someone In A Tree,” is not as satisfying as many other Sondheim compositions. Beautifully sung by the entire cast (though Kelvin Moon Loh and Austin Ku have some standout solo moments) the music is also well realized by the modest orchestra, under the sensitive musical direction of Greg Jarrett.
Presented as a chamber piece, the production’s means are modest, and are pretty much limited to some fabric sashes, parasols, fans and assorted props, which are put to various uses as the action requires. John Doyle’s Spartan set runs right through the middle of the audience, like twin scrolls unfurling to form a floating island — from which there is no escape. Doyle’s staging choices are quite limited in such narrow confines, but he makes good use of what space he has left himself, if you don’t mind people marching back and forth quite a bit during the production numbers. There is no choreography as such, which might have helped a bit, but what finally carries the day is the excellent cast, and the opportunity to hear this unusual Sondheim score.
The entire acting ensemble is flat-out excellent, individually possessed of superb musical and acting skills and collectively capable of playing like a tight-knit team. All the actors share the burden of telling the story, and Mr. Doyle is to be commended for bringing them together into a cohesive unit. While it would be unfair to single anyone out, this production is blessed to feature the wonderful George Takei, who brings his sonorous baritone voice and impish deadpan to the role of the Reciter, and his droll, assured presence is alone worth the price of admission.
Pacific Overtures, a Classic Stage Company production, with book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Directed & designed by John Doyle; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; music supervision by Rob Berman; music director, Greg Jarrett. Costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Melanie J. Lisby.
With: Karl Josef Co, Marc Delacruz, Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, Ann Harada, Kimberly Immanuel, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, Orville Mendoza, Marc Oka, Thom Sesma, George Takei.
Classic Stage Company, 136 E 13th St, New York, NY. (212) 677-4210