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Opportune new route to Sondheim's Japan


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., Manhattan. Through Jan. 30. Tickets $36.25-$91.25; 212-719-1300. Seen at Tuesday's preview.


December 3, 2004

The improbable and miraculous journey of "Pacific Overtures" continues at Studio 54, of all preposterous locations, where Stephen Sondheim's least-likely Broadway musical opened last night in a slow-starting but thrilling cross-cultural revival by Japanese director Amon Miyamoto.

How right it feels, finally. This is, after all, a show about the opening of Japanese trade routes by Commodore Perry in 1853, seen through the eyes of the Japanese. When Hal Prince directed the 1976 premiere with massive Kabuki and Broadway strokes, the work seemed a daring but overblown curiosity. Subsequent productions, including a dazzling, reduced version Off-Broadway in 1984, established the resilience of its exquisite songs and delicious political ironies.

Until Miyamoto brought Tokyo's New National Theatre to the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002, however, we had felt uneasy about its cultural tourism - the presumption of an American entertainment spin on a seismic 19th-century invasion of a distant people. At last, we were able to see the Japanese ideas of our idea about their ideas about Perry's uninvited visit to the fiercely isolated, peacefully ritualized "floating kingdom." Unfortunately, the show was in Japanese. Even with supertitles, this was a "Pacific Overtures" to appreciate more than adore.

How smart for the Roundabout Theatre Company to ask Miyamoto to rethink the material with Asian-American actors and Broadway punch. Japan's star director of Western musical theater has made this hybrid-of-a-hybrid into an authentic adventure. With updates as pertinent as Japan "joining their American allies" in Iraq, even Studio 54 - recent home to "Cabaret" and Sondheim's "Assassins" - turns its haute-disco history into a useful cultural artifact. The actors begin with attitude as glaring as the silver zippers on their hip black costumes.

B.D. Wong - with commanding, endearing bemusement but no singing voice - is the Reciter, our guide through the rituals and the history of the country where, for 250 years, foreigners were forbidden.

The modern people disappear behind revolving screens and reappear in the grand hyperconstructed silks of the shoguns, the samurai and the puppet emperor, not to mention the commoners' modest wraps. Rumi Matsui's sets are a serene horizontal expanse of blond wood, with the elevated East-West orchestra conducted by invaluable Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani.

Matsui's witty and gorgeous costumes include a giant Commander Perry on stilts with the big-nose Noh mask of a demon and, like the other U.S. sailors, a wig of gigantic metallic curls.

There always has been too much Weidman talk and not enough Sondheim music in the first part of the show, a weakness that all the stylized spectacles and delicate humanity of Miyamoto cannot solve. We highly recommend patience.

Before long, those clownish American ghouls will stride from the audience on the hanamichi, or ramp, and a huge flag will take over the ceiling of the theater. According to tradition, some men play women - most delightfully, Alvin Y.F. Ing as the Shogun's mother, part of the stunned court in Sondheim's deliciously stubborn "Chrysanthemum Tea." The same actor transforms later into the Old Man entrusted with "Someone in a Tree," often cited as Sondheim's most personal song - the philosophy of history in a rumba rhythm.

Michael K. Lee plays a lowly fisherman volunteered into dangerous power and seduced into materialism with the devastatingly witty and tragic "A Bowler Hat." In relevant contrast, Paolo Montalban as an Americanized prisoner begins with Western notions and learns through bitter experience to fear their impact. Lest we not believe him, there is the unstylized horror when the sweet British sailors close in on a woman in "Pretty Lady."

For all the exotic, growling declamations and Eastern microtones, we are stunned by the surprising timeliness of this West-eats-East cautionary tale of progress and globalization. When the Japanese are told, "Don't be afraid, we merely want to trade," it sounds like famous last words.

Paolo Montalban website: