Eric Schaeffer is at it again, taking an elaborate musical and drastically slashing characters and musicians until the budget is right. The a.d. of Signature Theater has whittled down Stephen Sondheim's adventurous "Pacific Overtures" into a package that is not only fiscally accessible for small orgs but remains artistically solid.

Eric Schaeffer is at it again, taking an elaborate musical and drastically slashing characters and musicians until the budget is right. The a.d. of Signature Theater has whittled down Stephen Sondheim’s adventurous “Pacific Overtures” into a package that is not only fiscally accessible for small orgs but remains artistically solid.

Just as he did last season with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Allegro” and the previous year with “110 in the Shade,” Schaeffer has reduced Sondheim’s 1976 musical from a 39-member cast and 22-piece orchestra to just 10 performers and seven musicians. The minimalist theme extends to the set, stripped to an essentially blank stage with a rising sun in the back and the orchestra discreetly behind.

The 10 actors get a thorough workout, performing an average of six roles. Also figure that without shortening the book, Schaeffer has paced the show at a speedy two hours and change, almost 25 minutes short of the norm. (Some minor changes were made with assistance from book writer John Weidman, most notably an update to the lyrics of finale “Next.”)

In their 12th Sondheim musical in 14 years, Schaeffer and Co. have sought to invent their own style of kabuki. The cast of mostly Signature regulars includes only two women — Donna Migliaccio as the reciter and Channez McQuay as the wife, grandmother and other roles. Other stalwarts include Will Gartshore as the samurai Kayama, Harry A. Winter in a blizzard of roles and Daniel Felton as the traveling fisherman who sets the plot in motion. Although not taxed choreographically under Karma Camp’s guidance, most are subjected to heavy vocal demands from their many assignments.

The cast’s highest moment by far is the spirited “Please Hello,” the act-two opening number, in which a corps of fawning admirals mimic Gilbert & Sullivan. Gartshore’s big number, “A Bowler Hat,” is also nicely rendered.

The streamlined production on the tiny Signature stage brings a welcome intimacy to the difficult work. Schaeffer’s direction carefully underscores the musical’s not-so-subtle message about the barbarians who awoke the Asian kingdom from its slumber. Sondheim’s score is nicely showcased by Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and Jon Kalbfleisch’s musical direction.

Pacific Overtures

Signature Theater, Arlington, Va.; 130 seats; $49 top

Production

A Signature Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. Choreography, Karma Camp.

Creative

Set, Schaeffer; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Mark Lanks; sound, Tony Angelini. Opened May 22, 2005. Reviewed May 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

With: Michael Bunce, Matt Conner, Steven Cupo, Daniel Felton, Will Gartshore, Channez McQuay, Donna Migliaccio, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Harry A. Winter.
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