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See this Sondheim

"Pacific Overtures"
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Ticket price: $36.25 to $91.25.
Theater: The Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
Phone: 212-719-1300.

(Original publication: December 3, 2004)

''Pacific Overtures." Loved it then. Love it now. A major revival of this relatively early Stephen Sondheim musical, directed by Amon Miyamoto, opened last night at the Roundabout Theatre Co.'s Studio 54 space.

The show remains glorious and troubling, elegantly austere and deeply emotional. It is about the opening of Japan, "the floating kingdom," to trade with the West in 1853.

When the show first opened on Broadway in 1976, it was generally not well-received. This reviewer was one of the few to respond favorably to it, and it remains among our favorite Sondheim musicals.

Fortunately, the cult of Sondheim has done nothing but grow in the nearly 30 years that have followed, so "Pacific Overtures" did not disappear, though it might still be considered something of a problem child.

The show had a successful revival at the Promenade Theatre in 1984, followed by another at London's Donmar Warehouse, and two years ago a Japanese-language version directed by Miyamoto was imported from Japan by the Lincoln Center Festival.

The present Roundabout revival is based on that production, though it is in English. Miyamoto, who is described in press coverage as a die-hard lover of the American musical, thus makes his U.S. staging debut with this imperfect but still lovely and compelling production.

What is immediately noticeable is how irreverent Miyamoto is in his approach to the Japanese tradition. The show's original director, Harold Prince, was almost solemnly judicious in his treatment of both the Noh and Kabuki theatrical content that give the show its unique style and its disturbing historical dimensions. (The Noh tradition involves masked and costumed performers with choral music and dancing; Kabuki dates to the 17th century, with men playing male and female roles.)

In contrast, Miyamoto is playful. He has the license to be, of course. This show is about his culture, though it is presented with an Asian-American cast, and through the lens of an unabashed fan of the American musical. Fundamentally, "Pacific Overtures" remains an American musical.

This is a considerably warmed-up version of "Pacific Overtures." The chief warming agent is Tony-winner B.D. Wong ("M. Butterfly"), who is cast as the Reciter, who "alternately comments on the action, joins it, or speaks in place of one of the other characters." Wong is front-and-center now, as a very active narrator. He's a friendly yet commanding guy.

The Noh figures dressed in black, and silently assisting with the action are practically nowhere to be seen. And the hanamichi, or runway, that used to lead to the stage from the side, has been replaced by a kind of drawbridge that hits the stage at dead center. Ironically, some of the sense of solemnity and timelessness of Japanese theater which made the original "Pacific Overtures" so riveting has been sacrificed to Miyamoto's finger-snapping "American" style. He is also the able choreographer of the piece.

Some of the awe-inspiring subtlety of John Weidman's book may be missing, but what is here with full force is one of the most beautiful Sondheim scores on record. Miyamoto delivers these often stand-alone musical numbers the show is frankly episodic with all their breathtaking beauty intact. (The spellbinding orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, and the long-esteemed musical director Paul Gemignani is reassuringly in the conductor's chair.)

"Someone in a Tree," which tells a historical story of the epochal meeting between Commodore Perry and Japanese officials as seen through the eyes of a small boy who is now an old man, is a mind-blowing study of what history is actually made up of, small fragments of an always unattainable, bigger canvas. It is a quartet for the Reciter, Telly Leung as the boy, Alvin Y.F. Ing as his older self, and Evan D'Angeles as a warrior.

"A Bowler Hat," sung by Michael K. Lee, charts a samurai's evolution into a Western-style diplomat through changes in his wardrobe, which all begin with a hat.

"I Will Make a Poem," sung by Lee and Paolo Montalban, makes exquisite use of the tradition of haiku poetry. In the comical "Welcome to Kanagawa," Francis Jue is a madam who contemplates the growth of her business with the arrival of the Westerners. "Pretty Lady" is a gentle song that, particularly as staged here by Miyamoto, becomes a more blatantly menacing attack on Japanese womanhood. But every song in the show is memorable.

This cataclysmic meeting between East and West takes on theater-rattling proportions that are well played out on Rumi Matsui's placid at first birchwood set, which is skirted by a moat with real water.

That moat can't keep change away. An updated final section on where Japan stands now, ends the show on a surprisingly upbeat but still gnawingly troubling note.

"Pacific Overtures" remains a fascinating and often spine-tingling show. It's a deeply original yet ultimately classical musical. And a must-see.

Paolo Montalban website: