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Seen & Heard

The Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures has got to be one of the most striking productions in recent history. Never a fan of Sondheim’s particular brand of discordant show tune, I approached the show with more than a fair amount of trepidation. Under the deft direction of Amon Miyamoto, I am happy to report that my expectations were exceeded, especially with respect to the performances and the show’s visual and aural elegance.

Pacific Overtures tells the tale of how America and the rest of the Western world attempted to establish contact with Japan in the middle of the 19th Century in order set up trade, use the island nation’s ports, etc. Throughout the show change occurs slowly and is represented by the Westernization of Kayama who goes from being a simple samurai to finally becoming governor, mainly to be the point person to deal with the damn, dirty Americans. In doing so, Kayama becomes immersed in Western customs—wine, bowler hats, eyeglasses, pants. His aide in dealing with the Americans is Manjiro, a fisherman who was rescued by Americans at age 14, raised and educated in New England, and has returned to Japan (leaving and returning to Japan were crimes punished by death in those days) to instruct his people on the best ways to deal with the new visitors.

As Kayama becomes more westernized, Manjiro becomes more entrenched in Japan’s traditions, eventually becoming a top samurai. The two men’s friendship is a centerpiece of the tale that begins with redemption and ends in tragedy. Paolo Montalban portrays Manjiro with complexity and dignity as a simple man who is torn between his Japanese roots and his Americanization, but ultimately finds solace in his birth country’s rich traditions. Anyone who has journeyed from their birthplace to a new land can certainly identify. However, the breakout performance of the evening belongs to Michael K. Lee who portrays Kayama, who transforms from a meek civil servant to a lapdog of foreign interests, all at his own government’s request. Lee’s emotional depth from semi-slapstick to deep loss and finally to acceptance and complacency is at once heartbreaking and compelling. I had never heard of Lee before Pacific Overtures but his performance will surely be the beginning of a long, successful career on Broadway and elsewhere. With a powerful voice that belies his timid appearance as Kayama, Lee will be a performer that we will see more of in the future.

Brian MacDevitt’s lighting successfully evoked the mystery of the land of the rising sun. Special effects were minimal, but that is the nature of the show. Whether illuminating the sea side or a temple, the lighting provided the perfect counterpart to the light-colored wood of the set. More importantly, the lighting did not detract from the gorgeous costumes by Junko Koshino. By outfitting the cast in traditional Japanese robes, I doubt there were many in Studio 54 who were not longing for such a comfortable garb. The costumes became even more striking when sharing the stage with the American sailors of Commodore Perry’s armada who were clad in dark blue coats fitted with golden buttons and epaulettes. As is the tradition in Japanese Noh theatre, masks were used to represent Westerners, and also because it was an all-Asian cast. Masks are traditionally used to represent five categories: gods, demons, men, women, and the elderly. Not surprisingly, the Westerners from America, England, France, Russia, and Holland were demonized. Beautifully capturing the nuances of typical Western musical instruments in concert with traditional Japanese musical instruments, Dan Moises Schreier’s sound design ably brought Far East sounds into Studio 54.

The sets by Rumi Matsui are constructed out of cypress and is surrounded on all sides (other than the backstage, I would imagine) by water to represent the island of Japan, a floating and calm holy land. By separating the stage from the audience with water, the auditorium of Studio 54 represents America and the rest of the world who–as told in the story–are trying their darnedest to establish trade with Japan. The set is striking in its simplicity and stark beauty. Even in the most harrowing scenes, the set gives off a feeling of serenity as the audience witnesses the history of Japan’s contact with the rest of the world in a fast-forwarded segment that includes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that point the great cypress beams tumble to the stage and stay there for the rest of the show indicating that yes, Japan has been changed, but it will only become stronger. Don’t believe me? What are you driving, watching, reading this article on, or listening to? –Mark A. Newman

Paolo Montalban website: