In “Pacific Overtures” (1976), Stephen Sondheim, with writers John Weidman and Hugh Wheeler, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, musicalized a major serious moment in world history—when Western powers aggressively ‘opened up’ hitherto isolationist Japan to Western trade and influence—and its effect on Japan, the Japanese people, and particular individuals. Some of “Pacific Overtures” is light-hearted and some of it is grand, but dark underpinnings always lurk beneath the surface. “Pacific Overtures” was not a success at first, running just six months at the Winter Garden Theatre, but its original cast album is a cult favorite and the musical has been revived at the Promenade Theatre, on the Upper West Side, to which it transferred from the York Theatre, in 1984, and by the Roundabout Theatre Company, at Studio 54, in 2004.
Now “Pacific Overtures” is enjoying a revival, through June 18, by the Classic Stage Company (CSC), pared down and simplified by director John Doyle. As he works his magic on it, what’s not to love? It’s intimate and intense, with 10 actors replacing the large original cast, responsible for multiple parts, and assisted by a chamber orchestra led by Greg Jarrett, and the production allows for closer examination of the significant relationships. As before, all roles, including the Westerners, are aptly played by Asian or Asian-American performers, but where stylization dictated that all figures, male and female alike, were played by men, two women now join them on stage. But the gender-bending, always treasured, continues, as the men and one of the women move fluidly between male and female roles. Production numbers still dazzle, but greater clarity marks the underlying menace because of their immediacy here, and relationships can come to fore without facing flashy trappings that obscured them earlier.
There’s a starry name at the head of the cast list, with George Takei, Hikaru Sulu from “Star Trek,” as well as GLBT icon, contributing gravitas and narration, haikus, and other pithy observations, as the omniscient Reciter. Takei and the others are in Western garb, decorated with cloth sashes, robes, and fans suggesting Japan as needed. This “Pacific Overtures” has a tale to tell and is not about exotica. The remainder of the outstanding ensemble includes other names that will be familiar to theatergoers.
The turning point of this 90-minute, intermissionless “Pacific Overtures” is “Please Hello,” still a flashy number that brings down the house. Japan could have continued blissfully relishing “the Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” but the West would have it otherwise. Admirals from five countries, threatening “barbarian invaders,” piloting menacing warships and proposing imports of dubious worth, make overtures, in vignettes that sum them up succinctly—the American, Karl Josef Co, waves the Star Spangled Banner and sings a rah-rah martial air; the British one, Austin Ku, fluently spouts scads of tongue-twisting Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter, while waving the Union Jack; the Dutch one, Marc Oka, has a breezy dance and brandishes Holland’s own red, white, and blue; the Russian, a fierce and sonorous Kelvin Moon Loh, intones a weighty Slavic folk dirge (“Don’t touch the coat!”), while wielding an anomalous hammer and sickle; and the Frenchman, Ann Harada, armed with the Tricolor, pushes “détente” to a catchy can-can, which the others, forming a kick-line, all pick up. Thom Sesma is the Lord Abe, reluctantly receiving them.
Co and Oka are also the fisherman and thief who spot the “Four Black Dragons,” the preliminary American convoy. Loh, Ku, and Sesma join forces for the lyrical “Someone in a Tree,” sharing their limited, tangential stories of what happened in the treaty house in Kanagawa, as they heard it from underneath and saw it while perched in a tree next to the structure on the beach, but proclaiming they were as much a part of it as the Japanese and American officials inside. And Harada personified the enterprising Madam, preparing her girls, played by a quartet of men of the ensemble, for the arrival of the strange Americans in “Welcome to Kanagawa.” The amusing “Chrysanthemum Tea” is omitted.
Doyle focuses on Kayama, Steven Eng, and Manjiro, Orville Mendoza, who emerged as real characters who go through believable changes. Kayama is a low-level Samurai, who is elevated to Prefect of Police and then Governor and given the thankless task of getting rid of the Americans, when they initially attempt to visit Japan. His poor wife is Tamate, ordinarily played by Megan Masako Haley, but portrayed by Kimberly Immanuel on the night that I attended, and they bid each other a simple, tender farewell in “There Is No Other Way.” Manjiro was abducted by the Americans, condemned for the crimes of both leaving and returning to Japan, but comes back full of praise for the wonders that he saw. They join forces early on, with Manjiro giving Kayama the idea of proposing, to Abe, a temporary treaty house, with tatami mats for flooring, so that the Americans will not profane Japanese soil, and the meeting place can be consigned to flames when the deed is done. As they travel, Eng’s Kayama and Mendoza’s Manjiro exchange short “Poems,” of Nature and love, to entertain each other and cement their friendship. Kayama, Manjiro, and Abe are commended by the Emperor, and Manjiro is pardoned and elevated to Samurai as well.
How the novel and disturbing presence of the Westerners affects Kayama and Manjiro, and the Japanese people in general, is a concern of the latter part of the play. In his wistful “A Bowler Hat,” a defeated Eng discloses how the West has altered his life—without making him happy. When sailors (Co, Loh, and Ku) mistake a Japanese woman for a Geisha, in “Pretty Lady,” and importune her with sexual advances, the innocent lilt of their music belying their malicious intent, the Samurai violently avenge the slight, and Kayama discovers that Manjiro, a now ferocious Mendoza, is one of the leaders. We leave the company musing wryly on what will come “Next” in a modernized, industrialized Japan.
“Pacific Overtures” plays Tuesdays to Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., and a slightly different schedule for Memorial Day Weekend. Visit their website here
for tickets and information. CSC is located at136 East 13th Street, east of Union Square, between Third and Fourth Avenues.