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Making bold 'Overtures'

B.D. Wong stars in 'Pacific Overture.'

PACIFIC OVERTURES. Musical by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim. With B.D. Wong and others. Directed by Amon Miyamoto. At Studio 54. Tickets: $36.25-$91.25 (212) 719-1300 Even after 30 years, "Pacific Overtures," given a provocative revival by the Roundabout at Studio 54, still seems Stephen Sondheim's most audacious musical.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning "Sunday in the Park With George" was just as ambitious, but it had a smidgen of a love story, making it more accessible than this musical about the way 19th-century Japan was revolutionized by its first confrontation with American and European commercial culture.

What was more daring than the quasi-intellectual nature of the theme was Sondheim's musical structures, many of which have a repetitive quality that suggested ritual, the reflection of a society yoked to tradition. One duet, for example, is based on haiku.

The unconventional structures represent a testing of what the Broadway musical could do, an assertion that no challenge was beyond its scope.

The second act begins with a witty number parodying 19th-century European musical forms as the great powers assault the bewildered Japanese. Near the end of the act, several British sailors sing the closest thing to a standard tune as they woo a frightened woman, "Pretty Lady."

The current production is directed by Amon Miyamoto, whose production with an all-Japanese cast was featured at the Lincoln Center Festival two years ago.

Paradoxically, it is far less exotic than the original production by Harold Prince, which had a kind of reverence for Japanese culture quite absent here.

The sets, for example, have a flatness that probably reflects a matter-of-fact understanding of how such things work rather than the diffident awe of the foreigner.

There is a nice moment when the screens that initially reflect the stability of Japan are tilted and swayed to suggest impending chaos. Nevertheless the overall texture is often coarse, and the sense of contrast between "modern" Japan and the idealized past less stark.

The show is an ensemble effort, and the all-Asian cast is extremely strong, especially Michael K. Lee, Paolo Montalban, Alvin Y.F. Ing (reprising his original role as the Shogun's mother) and Sab Shimono. Francis Jue is extremely funny as the chief welcomer to Kanagawa.

B.D. Wong, in a host of roles, is engaging if not commanding.

Jonathan Tunick has redone the orchestrations, which convey a powerful sense of Asia with smaller resources.

Whatever its weaknesses, it is always thrilling to see and hear this majestic score.

Originally published on December 3, 2004

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