The ongoing repercussions of the culture clash depicted in the 1976 musical “Pacific Overtures” were neatly illustrated onstage and off Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, where a Japanese production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s landmark show opened as the first theatrical offering from the Lincoln Center Festival. In the audience I spied an elegant woman in a traditional kimono, with a massive Hermes bag dangling from one arm. Onstage, meanwhile, the exuberant production from director Amon Miyamoto seemed influenced more by tried-and-true Broadway formulas than the traditional Japanese theatrical forms to which Harold Prince’s original production paid homage.
Miyamoto isn’t aiming for visual splendor. The physical production is actually marked by a distinct simplicity; Miyamoto said he looked to the Noh theater rather than Kabuki for his template. The templelike wooden set by Rumi Matsui uses a series of plain sliding screens and panels to reveal or obscure characters, and deftly move the focus from the personal stories of the central characters to the political pageant that surrounds them. Even Miyamoto’s more inventive pieces of business rely more on imagination and a flash or two of fancy lighting than expensive stagecraft.
The most striking moment in the production, aptly enough, comes when the big, bad boats from America arrive on the shores of 1853 Japan. As a comical parade of alien creatures descends upon the stage along a ramp that stretches far into the auditorium, their progress is paralleled overhead by a massive American flag that dives downward with the speed of a cruise missile. It’s a simple but clever and potently symbolic effect.
The Broadway-flavored pizzazz primarily comes from the performers’ approach to the material, which is often boldly and broadly comic; they gleefully take certain elements of Sondheim and Weidman’s material to the point of caricature and beyond. No American company, I suspect, would deliver “Welcome to Kanagawa,” in which a madam instructs her employees on ways to accommodate the new boys in town, with such fiercely funny camping. Likewise, the frightened natives’ flight from the invaders unfolds like a Three Stooges episode. Takeharu Kunimoto narrates the proceedings in an affectionately brassy comic style.
The choreography by Rino Masaki depends more on standard Western musical theater stylings than anything more sophisticated — or anything indigenous to Japan. But the percussion-heavy orchestrations, on the other hand, put the emphasis on the Asian influences in the score. It was sometimes a bit disappointing to read Sondheim’s lyrics rather than hear them (the show is performed in Japanese, with supertitles projected above the stage). But the separation, as it were, of the words from the music allows the ear to hear the restrained beauties in the score in a new light.
The highlights are a pair of songs that are among the finest examples of sophisticated musical storytelling in musical theater history: “Someone in a Tree,” in which the making of history is overheard — and, the song suggests, inevitably influenced — by anonymous observers; and “A Bowler Hat,” the haunting chronicle of a culture’s decline and the ramifications of this process in the lives of its citizens. The latter was particularly moving in this production, of course. Shuji Honda’s thoughtful, sober performance as Kayama, the small-time samurai whose destiny is remade by the momentous events surrounding him, managed to touch the heart even across the language barrier and the vast expanses of Avery Fisher Hall. No small achievement.