A musical that will probably always be more admired than loved, Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” is on rare display at Little Tokyo’s David Henry Hwang Theater, the new and larger home of L.A.’s venerable Asian-American theater troupe, East West Players. The company’s 1979 production of the musical, about the opening of Japan to Western trade in the 1850s, was the first of East West’s well-received forays into the Sondheim canon, and Tim Dang’s new staging has many small charms and much visual allure, even if it isn’t perhaps the “Pacific Overtures” of Sondheim lovers’ dreams.
In fact the show’s original production, despite flopping on Broadway in 1976, sounds from 20 years’ distance like this show’s ideal incarnation, with Harold Prince at the helm and Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz winning Tonys for sets and costumes, respectively.
But there’s little traditional Broadway razzle-dazzle in Sondheim and book author John Weidman’s conception, which mixes some of the stylistic hallmarks of traditional Japanese theater with Sondheim’s distinctive, elaborate lyrics and subtle melodies.
The result is a stylized, narrated revue that takes a backstage look at a momentous turning point in history through vignettes highlighting the small dramas behind it.
In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived on Japan’s shores with a quartet of warships and a letter of introduction from the president, willfully seeking to end 250 years of Japanese isolation, whose appeal to the tradition-bound country is amusingly explained in the show’s opening number, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.”
The complexities of Japanese politics are somewhat muddily rendered as the book follows the story of Kayama (Orville Mendoza), a small-time samurai who’s recruited to rebuff the commodore’s advances, but finds himself playing a larger role in history when Perry presses his point, with not-so-veiled threats of military reprisals.
Mendoza’s quiet, ruminative rendering of “A Bowler Hat,” the second-act solo that eloquently describes the incroaching of Western ways into Japanese culture, is among the production’s highlights.
Also nicely performed are “Someone in a Tree,” with Deborah Nishimura charming and a vocal standout as a young boy who’s the unlikely only witness to the first meeting between the Americans and the Japanese rulers; and “Pretty Lady,” with a trio of English sailors wooing a Japanese maiden, with equal parts sweetness and menace, to the tune of a lovely folk melody.
But if Sondheim’s songs don’t always require big, beautiful voices — which are generally absent here — they do need good enunciators, and though Alvin Ing does nicely as the shogun’s mother in “Chrysanthemum Tea,” he’s a washout as an American Admiral in the comic act two opener “Please Hello.”
He and the actors playing his fellow foreign admirals are all but incomprehensible, and the intricate wit of Sondheim’s lyrics in a delightful Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche is utterly lost.
Likewise, performances in some key roles are lackluster, chiefly Keone Young playing both the narrator and a shogun. The authoritative note he needs to sweep us along on the show’s sometimes convoluted journey is missing — he needs a commanding presence — an ingratiating one isn’t enough.
Dang’s staging is fairly fluid on a stage that seems just a little too intimate for the play’s complex structure, although Lisa Hashimoto’s simple and elegant sets smooth the way. And Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez’s costumes are so varied, vivid and delightful, they supply almost enough character to make up for some of the stiffness in the performances.