Review: ‘Pacific Overtures’ Revival Is Bare Yet Flowering

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Such choices would appear to fit the show’s aesthetic no less than they do Mr. Doyle’s, as theatergoers familiar with his pared-down revivals of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “Passion” — and, more recently, “The Color Purple” — will recognize. But “Pacific Overtures,” as originally conceived, is more complex than it seems, both in its perspective and its plot.

The story focuses on two characters whose lives cross and then, in a way, flip, much as the roles of the United States and Japan did historically. Kayama (Steven Eng) is a minor samurai who is promoted to prefect of police in order to head off the arrival of Commodore Perry and his gunboats. Manjiro (Orville Mendoza) is a fisherman who, having been rescued at sea by an American ship six years earlier, has just returned to Japan after living in Massachusetts. It’s he who warns the shogun of Perry’s imminent arrival and helps Kayama prevent the landing party from touching Japanese soil.

But as Kayama grows enamored of Western culture, Manjiro, who earlier sang of America as of a distant lover, grows disgusted with its arrogance. In the extraordinary song “A Bowler Hat,” we hear and see their crossover happen: Kayama learns to smoke cigars and read Spinoza while Manjiro pours the tea ceremony and mantles himself in samurai robes.

Well, we hear that, at least. Mr. Eng and Mr. Mendoza, like the cast as a whole, come to most colorful life while singing. Mr. Sondheim’s songs for “Pacific Overtures” are complete miniature dramas, loaded and compressed to a profound intensity. As their pentatonic melodies and Western harmonies recapitulate the cultural conflict, their lyrics achieve the pith and mystery of haiku.

Most of all, the numbers astonish with their narrative nimbleness. In “Please Hello,” the United States and four cartoon European powers clamor for trade rights, each in an apt musical style: a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song for Britain, a cancan for France. In “Someone in a Tree,” the fateful meeting between the Japanese and the Americans is recalled years later by a soldier who lay under the floorboards of the treaty house (and could hear but not see what was going on) and a boy looking down through the eaves (who could see but not hear).

One after another, especially as performed here in a 90-minute, one-act version with a much-revised script, these songs form a kind of conceptual art exhibition showing how, with enormous craft, Mr. Sondheim solved the riddle of the show’s convoluted point of view. “Pacific Overtures,” he has written, is a narrative of Japan as if told “by a Japanese who’s seen a lot of American musicals.” This sleight of hand helps mitigate the potential for Orientalism; had the show been written 25 years earlier, you can imagine what it might have been. Actually, you don’t have to: It would have been “The King and I.”

But in “Pacific Overtures” only the foreigners speak pidgin; the Japanese speak with great dignity about their dreams and despoilment. That works beautifully in Mr. Doyle’s production, which is delicate and focused enough to make small gestures, such as the closing of a parasol, pay. But to the extent that the Americans are meant to be hooknosed barbarians — as the Reciter, played by a stately George Takei, calls them in his narration — a great deal more vulgarity and verve are needed.

Mr. Doyle is allergic to those qualities. With the authors’ permission, he has cut the boffo “Chrysanthemum Tea,” a number in which the shogun’s mother wittily poisons him. Mr. Sondheim considers it “essentially a Jewish mother song,” and he should know, but it is also part of a crucial stylistic counterweight that’s largely missing here. (Also cut is the furious “Lion Dance” that ended the first act with a bang.) The lack of variety that results from these choices can be dulling, and the lack of clarity that results from a cast of just 10 actors playing dozens of characters (the original cast numbered 31) means that the shock you are meant to feel as Japan hurtles toward a violent modernity is diminished. The same is true with Jonathan Tunick’s lovely if brassless new orchestrations.

But as Mr. Doyle must have intended, something else is enhanced. The portrait of history as the sum of transactions between individuals who usually seem irrelevant was never as powerful as it is here. When Kayama and his wife, Tamate (Megan Masako Haley), sing “There Is No Other Way” — written to be performed by unnamed “observers” — an abstraction is personalized. And when Ms. Haley touchingly reappears as a girl mistaken for a geisha by British sailors, it suggests a connection that a plusher production would miss.

Probably no version of “Pacific Overtures” could achieve all of the show’s global and local, exquisite and bombastic effects at once. Still, with its promises to “expel the barbarians” and let “Japan be Japan again,” it may at this moment benefit more from Mr. Doyle’s understatement than it would from a grosser, glossier treatment. So let’s call the screen half full — which, with Mr. Sondheim’s songs, is more than enough.

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Source: New York Times

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