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Pacific Overtures

The Week in Review

Broadway: Pacific Overtures (Studio 54)

Pacific Overtures is one of Stephen Sondheim's problem shows. By Sondheim's own admission, it's a musical almost entirely about ideas rather than people. Even more off-putting for many, John Weidman's book traces the opening of Japan to the West in the 19th century, in the style of Kabuki theatre. Despite complaints by critics about the lack of strong narrative and muddled point of view, it remains an excitingly theatrical concept, with one of Sondheim's most ravishing scores. There have been a number of critically praised revivals, most notably the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production, which later transferred to London's Donmar Warehouse.

An acclaimed Japanese-language production seen at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002 prompted Roundabout Theatre Company to hire the Japanese director and choreographer Amon Miyamoto for a Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures. The result is not a happy one: if the original 1976 production was criticized a Westerner's inexpert notion of Kabuki theatre, the revival surely represents an Asian artist's awkward conception of a Broadway musical.

Miyamoto's production at Lincoln Center earned critical raves--but it was in Japanese. Here, with an English-speaking cast, the altogether too-busy staging, loaded with extraneous movement and unmotivated light cues, is a constant distraction. If you're choreographing a number that features lyrics like "In the middle of the world we float/In the middle of the sea/The realities remain remote/In the middle of the sea," it's best not have to a strenuously dancing chorus stealing focus from the lyrics. The number "Four Black Dragons," in which various characters describe their first sight of a US ship, loses all of its terror because we're watching the floor show taking place behind the singers. The ironic finale, "Next," which propels the action into the present (and which here unhelpfully interpolates references to Hiroshima and Japanese militarism) looks like nothing so much as Armageddon taking place on a disco floor. Throughout, Miyamoto stages key scenes far upstage, with actors placed downstage blocking the view.

The best--really the only--way to stage Pacific Overtures effectively is as sparely as possible, letting the words speak for themselves. When that does happen, the production suddenly leaps to life. Paolo Montalban and Michael K. Lee, as the twin protagonists, are charming as they trade haikus in "I Will Make a Poem." Lee also offers a moving version of "A Bowler Hat," which traces his character's assimilation into Western culture. Alvin Y. E. Ing provides a fine rendition of "Chrysanthemum Tea," in which the Shogun's mother poisons her son, even as she offers policy advice. Throughout, B. D. Wong is a smoothly ironic narrator.

There's a lot to like in the blonde-wood setting and fierce masks designed by Rumi Matsui and the beautifully trailing kimonos by Junko Koshino. As was the case with Assassins, the previous musical at Studio 54, Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is defined by a crystalline transparency; when the lyrics are lost in "Please Hello," Sondheim's masterful, five-part pastiche of Western musical styles, it's the actors' poor diction that's at fault. Brian MacDevitt has apparently succumbed to Miaymoto's desire for flashy, colorful lighting cues; if ever a musical could have benefited from his normally restrained style, this is it.

It's ironic that Miyamoto was widely expected to provide a more authentic staging of Pacific Overtures; instead, his work is full of Broadway clichés, bits of direction and lots of dance moves that come from the collective vocabulary of American musical theatre. The ironic conclusion of Pacific Overtures is that, having been invaded by Western values, Japan has become more like us than we are. If this production is any indication, it may be truer than anyone realizes.

Paolo Montalban website: