Musical theater aficionados might be the most fanatically opinionated followers of any popular art form, but there exist two even more passionately fired-up sub-sects within that group: Stephen Sondheim fans and devotees of the composer’s “Pacific Overtures,” perhaps the most extremist flock of all. Entirely persuading the purists with any production of the enthrallingly esoteric culture-clash chronicle seems a near-impossible dream. But Japanese director Amon Miyamoto has brought clarity, accessibility and thematic resonance to this ambitious, audacious show, which remains unlike any other American musical. Initially conceived as a play by book writer John Weidman and transformed into a musical when original director Harold Prince brought in Sondheim, the show premiered on Broadway at the Winter Garden in 1976.
The Kabuki-styled production divided critics and proved too rarefied for mainstream auds, thronging that year to “A Chorus Line.” It closed after 193 performances, losing its $650,000 investment. An Off Broadway revival played the Promenade in 1984, finding wider critical favor but no greater commercial success, losing most of its budget of nearly $500,000 when it shuttered after 109 perfs.
Following the company’s riveting staging of Sondheim’s “Assassins” last season, the Roundabout’s imperfect yet admirable Broadway revival of “Pacific Overtures” adheres largely in conception to Miyamoto’s Japanese-language version, seen in a short 2002 New York engagement as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Turning less to Kabuki than to traditional Japanese Noh theater for inspiration, the director successfully, if not altogether seamlessly, weds Eastern and Western flavors. More importantly, without over-simplifying, his production carves a fluid through-line out of a challengingly obscure, episodic history play peppered with vignettes and mini-narratives and goes some distance toward fleshing out characters in a show in which individual figures are secondary to the twin protagonists of America and Japan and the ambivalent relationship between them.
The musical focuses on the arrival on Japanese shores in 1852 of U.S. naval officer Commodore Matthew Perry with four warships to initiate trade relations, breaking 250 years of peaceful isolation, protected by a sacred decree.
A military euphemism worthy of Donald Rumsfeld, the title sardonically underscores America’s arrogant imperialism as it forcibly penetrated Japanese insularity. But Weidman and Sondheim’s depiction of Japan is only marginally more tender.
Opening number “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” extols the virtues of tranquil self-sufficiency but also shows a hermetic, stiffly ceremonial nation obtusely impervious to progress, change and external reality, while closing song “Next” conveys Japan’s ready embrace of industrialization. America may be a cultural rapist, but Japan, after an initial display of nerves, becomes an eager victim.
Those songs intelligently bookend a show that provides melancholy commentary on the disappearance of traditional cultural values. Always a difficult number in that it advances the action by an entire century, “Next,” is presented in an updated version with new statistics, soberingly punctuated at mid-point by the Hiroshima bomb.
However, Miyamoto’s affection for flashy Broadway musicals in the opening and closing songs is compromised by kitschy choreography, and by hideous modern costumes in “Next.” Given the elegant economy of costume designer Junko Koshino’s robes and chic basic-black uniforms, the lapse into ’80s dance fever outfits is unfortunate, conjuring unwanted ghosts from Studio 54’s heyday.
Musically, “Floating” seems undercharged, but the scaled-back seven-piece orchestra generally suits the songs, and the heavy use of traditional lutes and percussion instruments like wood blocks, chimes and drums showcases the craftsmanship behind this distinctly Japanese-flavored score.
Under the musical direction of longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani, Jonathan Tunick’s delicate orchestrations favor slow builds, with single instruments starting solo, and other players gradually layered in. The approach works well on “There Is No Other Way,” the haunting suicide song of Kayama’s wife Tamate (Yoko Fumoto), one of the more moving moments in a show marked by emotional restraint. (Original production stuck to Kabuki tradition with an all-male cast until the present-day finale; Miyamoto’s cast includes both women and men in onnagata female roles.)
Also memorable here is the British sailors’ “Pretty Lady,” gracefully led by Telly Leung, whose sweet, clear tenor distinguishes a handful of songs; and both “Someone in a Tree” and “A Bowler Hat,” two beautifully complex feats of musical narration. The latter neatly conveys the parallel transitions of Kayama (Michael K. Lee), the junior samurai promoted to prefect and later governor, who becomes increasingly Westernized; and Manjiro (Paolo Montalban), the fisherman and felon whose initial purchase of the American dream gives way to bitter refusal and exclusionist radicalism.
The orchestrations and neutral performance styles (less melodramatic than the Kabuki influence of the original) aid comprehension of the lyrics, which is fundamental to follow the intricate plot and still far from easy for anyone coming cold to the show. In the key featured roles, Lee conveys the complexity of Kayama, a man whose elevation carries a sting, while Montalban is suitably feisty and steadily more severe as Manjiro embraces the samurai ethic. But the buff actor looks too contemporary, prompting speculation about the availability of personal trainers in feudal Japan.
Two cast members from Prince’s production make rewarding returns: Sab Shimono (the original Manjiro) plays troubled statesman Lord Abe with stature and dignity, while Alvin Y.F. Ing recreates his role of the machiavellian Shogun’s mother in a delightful rendition of “Chrysanthemum Tea,” another peerless example of Sondheim storytelling. (The Shogun loses his sumo wrestlers in this production but gains a male concubine.) Ing also warmly sings the old man role in “Someone in a Tree.”
Miyamoto at times pushes the material toward broad comedy with clumsy results. “Welcome to Kanagawa” veers into drag-queeny grotesquerie, with Francis Jue’s madam instructing her newly recruited hookers via some bawdy rope tricks. And the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque banter of the foreign admirals’ song “Please Hello” suffers from less confident staging and the performers’ unclear diction. The lighter mode also colors the central role here of the Reciter, and while B.D. Wong is an engaging actor, his smiling, ingratiating turn lacks weight and will be questionable to anyone who remembers Mako’s authoritative, wry sternness in the original.
While designer Rumi Matsui’s spare cypress-frame set is no match for Boris Aronson’s elaborately imagined fantAsia in the 1976 production (unthinkable with today’s escalated costs), the temple-like structure, “floating” between twin pools of water and extending in a traditional walkway into the audience, is simple and striking. Mobile screens are deftly employed to suggest various settings, with Brian MacDevitt’s supple lighting contributing significantly to characterize both the intimate stories and the stormy larger events.
Matsui also designed the masks, worn here only by foreign “barbarians,” who appear as the Japanese see them: hook-nosed gargoyles with wiry Medusa-like hair. The most imposing of these is Commodore Perry, depicted as a menacing giant with headlights for eyes. However, the character’s signature lion dance, which traditionally closed act one on a potent note, survives here only perfunctorily.