Book by John Weidman; additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto
Starring B.D. Wong, featuring Alvin Y.F. Ing, Francis Jue, Michael K. Lee, Paolo Montalban, Yoko Fumoto and Sab Shimono
At Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54, New York City
Stephen Sondheim’s talent is like the Grand Canyon, which I had the good fortune to visit for the first time last month. Every time you think you have a sense of how enormous it is, you realize it’s even bigger than you thought. And like the Canyon, his talent transforms itself with each new view — you can look away for just a few minutes and, through some strange alchemy of the light, see something different, something true and lovely, in the exact same spot.
The mutability, skill and beauty of Sondheim’s work comes through clearly in the current revival of Pacific Overtures, which has been mounted with skill and precision by director-choreographer Amon Miyamoto and a talented, protean cast led by B.D. Wong. I wasn’t lucky enough to see the original, Hal Prince-directed production in the mid-1970s (at that benighted age my only exposure to Sondheim had been a hilarious Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Westbury Music Fair, starring two of the original stars, Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford. There will never be another Mostel; thanks for taking me, mom.)
From what I’ve read, the original production failed to find an audience in the breast-beating feel-good-a-palooza of the American Bicentennial. Hard to believe a musical about the U.S.’s unwanted intrusion in an Asian country precipitating anguish, suicide and civil war wouldn’t be a smash hit at any time, much less at the tail end of the Vietnam War, but there you go.
The Roundabout Theatre Company deserves plaudits for producing this revival as well as last year’s superb Assassins, another unjustly neglected Sondheim gem whose original production was shadowed by the first Gulf War. In recent years, the Roundabout has too often played it safe, importing “name” actors from TV and Hollywood to appear in insufficiently-thought-out revivals, but it has taken a positive turn this season, with a first-rate, defiantly un-starry Twelve Angry Men as well as this excellent production. The only “name” in the Overtures cast is B.D. Wong, known for his television work on “Oz” and “Law and Order: SVU,” but he has a solid theater background, including winning a Tony Award for M. Butterfly.
Pacific Overtures explores the “opening” of Japan in 1853, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, accompanied by four large warships, demanded that Japan end its two-and-a-half century self-imposed isolation — an isolation that had successfully preserved feudal social structures while other parts of the world were revving up the Industrial Revolution and global power politics.
Miyamoto uses Asian theater forms to tell both the human stories and explore the bigger issues in Pacific Overtures, including having men play some women’s parts (Alvin Y.F. Ing is a joy as a sweetly homicidal shogun’s mother, a role he played in the original production). He is aided considerably by the set and mask designs of Rumi Matsui and the precise, evocative lighting of Brian MacDevitt. Matsui uses pools of water around the playing area to literalize Japan’s isolated island status, but instead of being corny the design reminds the audience of the artificiality of all theater forms, a key subtext of the entire production.
Again and again, as in the almost endless reconfigurations of moveable screens to create new playing areas, the audience is reminded that how a story is told is as important — maybe more important — than the story itself. For example, the powerless but still ceremonially important Emperor, a puppet leader dependent on the shogun, is literally played by a puppet. That is, until his Western-influenced restoration, when Wong (who plays many roles throughout the production) embodies the Emperor, in a sign that Japan is now ready to move into the modern world with a vengeance.
Sondheim’s songs also meditate on the roles of storyteller and audience, most notably in the touching “Someone in a Tree,” as an old man (Ing again) remembers his younger self (Telly Leung) spying on the negotiations between Perry’s party and the outwardly cowed, inwardly contemptuous Japanese nobles. Treaties and agreements can be shredded, and nobody can agree on what a historical event really means, but as the old man and his younger self sing, they were part of the event. Their presence, not the politics, makes it important.
Sondheim and Prince were also originally criticized for telling an Asian story when they themselves are as American as apple — well, at least blueberry — pie. I can understand that point of view but I believe the use of non-Western theater forms was, and is, legitimate. Pacific Overtures is less about appropriating a foreign culture than in commenting on how the audience understands a story. In the lovely second-act song “Pretty Lady,” three “British” sailors, with Cockney accents apparently modeled on Dick Van Dyke’s unsubtle work in Mary Poppins, mistake a noblewoman for a geisha/whore.
Sondheim and Miyamoto create a complex situation with this song: for one thing, these “Cockneys” are, like everyone else in the cast, Asian or Asian-American. A U.S. theater audience, primed on My Fair Lady, automatically thinks they and their accents are cute, and cuts them some slack. The music itself is hauntingly lovely, but the woman being offered money, by men speaking a language she doesn’t understand, is terrified. Perspective is everything.
And despite the parallels to today’s foreign policy (an enormous American flag, unfurled over the theater balcony, is appropriately threatening given the situation), Overtures doesn’t indulge in simple U.S.-bashing. The Japanese wanted to be left alone, it’s true, but their isolation intensified their own racism and froze in place their own society’s inequities. Overtures may overreach in suggesting that the 1853 opening reaped the whirlwind of Japanese militarism, conquest and commercialism of the 20 th century, but before the overdone finale it provides plenty of food for thought.