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REVIEW: 'Pacific Overtures' Coarse
AP Drama Critic

NEW YORK -- A "Pacific Overtures" lost at sea? There is a rough, unsteady quality to the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, a show that can be as delicate and demanding as any musical the composer has ever written.

Which is strange since the production, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Studio 54, is a direct descendent of a highly praised, Japanese-language version that director Amon Miyamoto brought from Japan to the United States in 2002 for brief runs in Washington, D.C, and New York.

The Roundabout adaptation uses a cast of Asian-Americans and, surprisingly, something is missing in the musical's return to its home turf.

Not that there aren't pleasures to be found, but this revival seems coarser and not as secure as other productions of the show, particularly director Gary Griffin's immaculate, small-scale version done in Chicago and London.

This latest incarnation is midsize and middling, finding its strengths in the emotional qualities of the score, one of Sondheim's most ambitious, right up there with "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park With George." The production doesn't look particularly lavish, although designer Rumi Matsui's movable tan panels and Junko Koshino's colorful costumes are often lovely to see.

"Pacific Overtures," which has a book by John Weidman (with an assist from Hugh Wheeler), concerns the opening of Japan to the West, starting in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry. It chronicles the changes to the culture and its people, primarily through two men: Kayama, a poor fisherman turned samurai, who embraces Western ways, and Manjiro, a sailor, who has seen the outside world but who returns to fiercely reconnect with traditional Japanese culture.

The disparity between the two men is seen most succinctly in the song "A Bowler Hat," as Kayama, portrayed by Michael K. Lee, sheds his native identity for a more Western appearance.

And there is an equally affecting moment in "I Will Make a Poem," a simple, haiku-like duet for the two men as they each sing of the woman they love. Lee and Paolo Montalban, who plays Manjiro, handle the number beautifully.

B.D. Wong makes for a genial, unassuming Reciter, the show's nominal narrator. Wong's affable personality is more tour guide than forceful personality, and he tends to get lost in this over-busy production.

Part of the problem is Weidman's book, a tale of epic scale, in which the often convoluted story dwarfs the characters, even the fisherman and the sailor. And that busyness hampers the musical's ensemble numbers which often come across as raggedly overacted. Particularly unsuccessful are the show's few moments of musical comedy. "Welcome to Kanagawa," sung by a madam and a bevy of geisha girls eager to greet sailors, falls flat in its obviousness.

And what should be the comic highlight of the show -- a parade of American, British, Dutch, Russian and French admirals -- collapses in incomprehensibility, a major crime in any Sondheim musical. His lyrics for each of these "barbarians" are witty comments on their nationalities, but none of them come through at Studio 54.

The last number of "Pacific Overtures" has been updated since the show first opened on Broadway in 1976 and where it ran for about five months. The musical finale is ominously called "Next," a hard-driving pean to what Japan has accomplished late in the 20th century.

"Let the pupil show the master," goes one lyric as the country finds its place in contemporary life. Japanese successes in the United States -- from Sony to Toyota to New York Yankees superstar Hideki Matsui -- are enumerated by punk, trendily black-clad dancers, looking as if they would be right at home in Studio 54 in its previous incarnation as a disco. It's a frantic ending for an often shaky production.

Paolo Montalban website: