Director John Doyle is such a wizard, he could probably stage a show on a postage stamp. The stage at Classic Stage Company is larger than that — as reconfigured for this Off Broadway house, the playing space for Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” unfurls like a Japanese scroll, creating a ramp that runs the length of the theater. The stylized performances of a superb Asian-American cast — including George Takei — are ideally suited to this minimalist production of one of the great musicals of our time.
Theatergoers who treasure their memories of the opulent production originally staged on Broadway by Harold Prince will have to pack those memories away. Spectacle has no place in this production; it’s replaced with intimacy. By seating the audience on both sides of the ramped stage, Doyle creates the enchanting illusion that John Weidman’s historically faithful book and Sondheim’s magnificent score are literally unfolding from the pages of an ancient manuscript.
The close staging also allows each lyric line to ring out with astonishing clarity. And for all the beauty of Sondheim’s Asian-inflected music, the lyrics are especially arresting. The evocative voice of George Takei as the Reciter introduces us to the Floating Kingdom that was Japan in 1853, an island empire that for centuries had lived in peaceful isolation. The dreamy melody and languorous lyrics of the opening song that follows — “In the middle of the world we float / In the middle of the sea / The realities remain remote / In the middle of the sea” — are hypnotically seductive.
The minimalist style extends to the costuming (by Ann Hould-Ward), which uses striking pieces — a flutter of fans, a tissue-thin paper umbrella, the sweeping stole of a silken kimono — to suggest the actual garment. Jane Cox’s lyrical lighting design and Dan Moses Schreier’s soundscape are equally suggestive. In the same way, the wisp of a nine-piece ensemble under the musical direction of Greg Jarrett hints at a symphonic orchestra. If Japanese artists have taught us nothing else, it’s the scope of the unfettered artistic imagination.
Aside from Takei’s riveting Reciter, our hearts want to follow Steven Eng as Kayama, the young functionary chosen to greet the terrifying visitors in the big black warships, and Megan Masako Haley as his lovely, faithful wife, both of them committed to their national traditions. “The eye sees, the thought flies” is their unbearably tender love duet, the lyrics as spare and polished as a haiku.
A versatile cast double and triple in roles played on Broadway by considerably more actors. Still, there are some standouts. Like Thom Sesma as the Old Man and Austin Ku as the Young Boy who remember (“Someone In a Tree”) spying on the historic moment when Admiral Perry landed on Japanese soil. And Kelvin Moon Loh as the comic Russian Admiral (in “Please Hello”) who issues a warning (“Don’t touch the coat!”) to anyone bedazzled by his uniform.
Even more memorable, surely, is the sad song, “It’s Called a Bowler Hat,” sung by Steven Eng, that marks the final surrender of the Japanese lured by material goods the foreign powers brought to their peaceful little island in the middle of the sea. Sadder yet is lovely Megan Masako Haley, cowering under her parasol as the hairy sailors serenade her with “Pretty Lady.”
In this highly articulate score, every song seems perfectly pitched to every social atrocity executed in the name of progress. In Sondheim’s eyes, the western nations didn’t woo Japan — they raped it.