Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pacific Overtures"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim book by John Weidman additional material by Hugh Wheeler
directed by Kent Gash co-choreographed by Darren Lee and Francis Jue



Second Councilor/Soothsayer/Thief/British Sailor/Russian Admiral/Assassin

Fisherman/American Officer/Kanagawa Girl/Lord of The South/ Priest Two

Samurai/Assassin/Commodore Perry/Kanagawa Girl/Samurai's Daughter/Noble/Sword Craftsman



Shogun's Mother/Old Samurai/Lord of The South/Kenjutsu Master/Merchant's Grandmother

Manjiro/Observer One/ Dutch Admiral

Tamate/Shogun's Companion/French Admiral/Assassin

Lord Abe/American Officer/Ensemble

Third Councilor/Merchant/British Admiral/Madam/Old Man/Physician/Kayama's Valet/Assassin


Priest One/Boy/Kanagawa Girl/British Sailor/Merchant's Son/Kayama's Servant

Shogun's Wife/Kanagawa Girl/Merchant/ Samurai Warrior/American Admiral/British Sailor/Observer Two

Conductor................M. Michael Fass
Violin/Viola.................Michael Loo
Cello.......................Sandy Kiefer
Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet...Ernst Sila, III
Percussion...............Doug Pippincott
Drums/Percussion....Michael Ambroszewski
Keyboard...............Jonathan Goldberg

Well, what do you know: a Sondheim musical that I liked! --- PACIFIC OVERTURES, in a smashing production at the North Shore Music Theatre. Though it failed on Broadway during the Bicentennial (partly for its anti-American slant --- it was the cynical 70s, remember), this revue of the Western world invading and transforming Japan from the 1850s to the present broke new ground in its blending of Kabuki theatre and American showmanship; ground so new there is no other musical like it --- and some might hate it for exactly that reason. I, for one, did not.

I have blasted Sondheim musicals in the past --- and been blasted in turn by those who worship the water he walks on --- so why does PACIFIC OVERTURES cause me to cheer? Its score is as jingle-jangle as the others (it’s astonishing that the man hasn’t penned a hit tune in thirty years) and some of its numbers prove deadly or dull in the usual Sondheim manner. But the material freed Mr. Sondheim to do what he does best as a composer: Making a Sound --- all of those trademark dissonances dovetail into what Western ears perceive Eastern music to be like (listening to the Broadway cast recording is not enough --- the score must be heard within the context of the show for full effect; in fact, ‘tis better to view PACIFIC OVERTURES as a play with music than as a musical). The show’s theatrical impact also reveals, once and for all, the man to whom Mr. Sondheim is the rightful heir: not Oscar Hammerstein II, his mentor, but Bertolt Brecht (with a nod to Marc Blitzstein). Like Brecht, Mr. Sondheim wants to teach rather than entertain; if he does entertain, it’s icing on the cerebral cake (those who adore him gush over his penetrating lyrics more than his music). PACIFIC OVERTURES forces the audience to coolly observe; to learn, rather than to feel, in the Brechtian manner (given this material, Mr. Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers might have concentrated on the love story of Kayama and his faithful-unto-death wife). Perhaps this last element was PACIFIC OVERTURES’ real undoing: Mr. Sondheim, librettist John Weidman and producer/director Harold Prince forced their audiences to THINK --- and at a musical, too. As excellent as the North Shore production is and despite the packed house on the afternoon I attended, there were many who didn’t “get” it and were puzzled, angry, bored --- and waiting for a tune. That, plus many (white) Americans are simply tired of being told about all the wrong things their country has done; PACIFIC OVERTURES is now dated in its cynicism --- the celebrated Lion Dance, where the stylized movements of a Kabuki Admiral Perry give way to pure cakewalk, is exhilarating where it was once shame-inducing. (Two criticisms of John Weidman’s pageant-libretto: Japan is made out to be a Peaceable Kingdom when in reality it was just the opposite, and a little thing called World War II is omitted altogether --- though I sense we’re to interpret Pearl Harbor as our punishment for bringing Japan into the 20th century….)

Mr. Prince may be the inseparable genius behind much of Mr. Sondheim’s work, but director Kent Gash and choreographers Darren Lee and Francis Jue have gotten along very nicely without him. Theirs is a stripped-down production set on the North Shore’s little square-in-the-round stage where the ensemble rises and disappears through various traps in the floor or parades down the aisles or declaims in the midst of the audience; they are the scenery as well as the puppets and form many beautiful tableaus as if sketched on water; stylized and fleeting. Rather than go for spectacle, the Messrs. Gash, Lee and Jue go for bare simplicity and bring out all of the show’s strengths --- and some human warmth, as well. Paul Tazewell’s dazzling costumes are well-researched and speak volumes about Japanese class, culture and emotions even if Mr. Weidman does not, and William Grant III’s light patterns will convince you that little stage is made of anything but wood.

Aside from two young women who appear during the Finale, all of the roles (male and female) are played by twelve gifted men (however they manage their many costume and make-up changes is a bloody marvel --- those are complex fabrics and paints to get in and out of!). The role of the Reciter --- the evening’s sardonic narrator --- has so much of the King of Siam built in that it pays to cast a “King” actor to portray him and Raul Aranas, who has both a “King” and an “Engineer” under his belt, makes a handsome, commanding figure carved from fire and ivory. Among the others, Mikio Hirata steals all of his scenes as several old women; Steven Eng and Jason Ma are sweet as the show’s true leads (a samurai and a fisherman who start off as friends and end up as enemies); and Alan Mangaser can cause many a glazed eye to focus in delight as a French fop of an admiral in the pure-Broadway showstopper, “Say Hello”.

This is a wide-awake businessman’s show and therefore not for everyone. As far as I can tell, PACIFIC OVERTURES is rarely performed due to its large Asian cast, so if this sounds like your cup of tea (no pun intended), then seize whatever North Shore tickets remain if you want to see and hear where the Great American Musical was once headed several decades ago.

"Pacific Overtures" [26 August - 14 September]
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY, MA 01915
1 (978) 232-7200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide