“Pacific Overtures” chimes freshly resonant chords in a new London staging that finds a 1976 musical that’s taken up with history also intersecting with it anew. Returning to the repertoire of Stephen Sondheim for the fifth time in the last 11 years, the Donmar should find itself doing brisk summer trade with one of only two mainstream musical revivals (the imminent al fresco “High Society” in Regent’s Park is the other) to appeal to an audience that has probably already seen everything else.
That said, it’s equally likely London hasn’t yet had a “Pacific Overtures” of such assuredness and style, its overall arc confident enough to withstand some undersung perfs (not unusual at this address) and a tendentious bit of 9/11 thesis-mongering that Sondheim’s amazing score is strong enough to withstand.
The director is Chicagoan Gary Griffin, returning to material he first revived in the Windy City in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, it isn’t just a highly debatable war that has lent a new piquancy to talk of the Western “barbarians” who arrive at Japan’s none-too-welcoming 19th-century portals as part of an “opening-up” process that brought with it countless materialist pleasures as well as no small degree of psychic pain. One hopes our modern-day boys in Iraq are slightly more simpatico to their host culture than the laughing, uncomprehending Americans here witnessed arriving at Kanegawa in the 1850s.
But as is characteristic of Sondheim, the pun in the musical’s title is also its crushing irony in the depiction of a none-too-pacific clash of cultures that does indeed leave one wondering just what (who?) will be, to coopt the title of the final song, “next.” Even during that number, which is as bombastic as the show ever gets, the nuanced possibilities and small size of the Donmar benefit a musical first seen in London in the contrastingly vast surrounds of the English National Opera at the Coliseum in 1987. (In the ’90s, the Leicester Haymarket and London’s Bridewell Theater both produced the show.)
The opening scene-setting number introduces us to the “floating kingdom” of Nippon via a clever Daniel Ostling set that itself floats in Hugh Vanstone’s seductively liquid lighting within the intimate Donmar, positioning the audience for the first time at this address on all four sides. And as we become musically acquainted with the various trademarks of Japan (screens, rice, bows), Griffin sets the focus on an episodic, sometimes sketchy script’s two protagonists: Manjiro (Richard Henders), the fisherman newly returned from America only to himself turning murderous, and Kayama (Kevin Gudahl), the minor samurai who steps up the social and political ladder, his often grievous acculturation the subject of the always moving “A Bowler Hat,” a number that is a play all by itself.
The Donmar is generally at its best with Sondheim when it allows his qualities as dramatist to sing out — on “A Bowler Hat,” preeminently, but also, in this production, on the first-act “Poems,” an exchange of amities between embryonic friends (and eventual adversaries), Kayama and Manjiro. Elsewhere, the simply inflected, Noh-inspired staging gives pride of place to Joseph Anthony Foronda’s firmly spoken narrator, the performer one of three Americans who has joined an otherwise British (and multiracial) company in what isn’t entirely a seamless match.
It’s bizarre, to put it mildly, that a British performer should struggle with the Gilbert and Sullivan patter song pastiche that is part of “Please, Hello,” but that’s the case here. And the company as a whole could do without the occasional and peculiar vocal swoops (on words like “death”?), giving a sing-song, faux-Japanese sound to the discourse that is not a little patronizing.
I suppose it’s inevitable, as well, that some of the piece should nod less toward the Orient than toward England’s own deeply ambivalent relationship with America, a so-called “special” relationship that daily risks turning sour. (And let’s face it: Isn’t Britain, no less than Japan, a tiny floating island that gets off on its own sense of the savage American at the gates?) Where the production scores best are in the visual flourishes — costume designer Mara Blumenfeld’s exquisite kimonos or even sashes, donned or discarded as necessary by the black-clad company — that here complement the aural ones allowing musical director Mark Warman’s band of four to find every beauty in the supremely audacious score.
That’s why one hardly needs the sound of thundering planes to remind us of an all-too-recent barbarism. The impact is implicit in the lyrical reference near the start to “disturbances worlds away/(in a place) where tomorrow is like today.” Prescient in a way Sondheim and colleagues John Weidman and Hugh Wheeler could never have expected, “Pacific Overtures” three decades on has the power that comes for free, when history catches up with culture.