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"Pacific Overtures"

The musical "Pacific Overtures" first opened in 1976 and it received ten Tony nominations. Now a new production of this Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman collaboration is being produced on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. Here with her review is Roma Torre.

Steven Sondheim is something of an acquired taste. A foreign delicacy to some, others may find his sophisticated fare awfully remote. And so when Sondheim writes a show about Japan from a Japanese perspective, the result will either send audiences into dizzying ecstasy or out the door.

"Pacific Overtures", written almost 30 years ago with book writer John Weidman is an ambitious, richly layered work that is a conceptual masterpiece. But that doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it.

Led by a narrator we're taken back in time to Japan in 1853. After 250 years of isolation, this feudal empire is jolted by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and four of his gun ships which appear to the terrified Japanese as black dragons. The Shogun dispatches a lowly Samurai on what's assumed to be a suicide mission to turn the invading barbarians away. He is assisted by a fisherman who had spent several years in Boston. The rest is of course history as Japan transforms over the next 150 years into the economic powerhouse it is today.

The story's been told before, but the execution sets this apart. Those who saw the original Broadway production with its grandiose Kabuki-inspired staging will find a much less lavish show featuring the subdued traditions of the Noh Theatre. Directed by Japan's Amon Miyamoto, "Pacific Overtures" relies on a series of modest sliding panels, sumptuous lighting and period costumes to convey a vivid sense of the orient. When Perry lands we see him through the eyes of the Japanese: depicted as an awesome giant with hooked nose and wild hair. It's an inspired touch revealing the foreignness of the west. There are a number of inspired moments and yet the production can also feel long and disjointed.

Sondheim's score includes some of the most complex and intellectually satisfying work of his career. There are nuggets here that are exquisite. But there's also a sense of over-indulgence. The first act in particular rambles. And Studio 54's uncomfortable seating left over from "Cabaret" can make if feel downright painful.

BD Wong plays the narrator as an amiable host. He's a fine singer who brings warmth to the role. Mostly though this is an impressive ensemble effort featuring some outstanding performances.

Thirty years ago, Japan's relationship with the west was emerging as a curious phenomenon. Today much has changed. And the show seems less relevant now. The peculiar attempt at the end to update with such modern references as Sony, Iraq and Hideki Matsui doesn't help. "Pacific Overtures" is still quite a feat for a couple of white guys. Though uneven, it remains a stunning if not numbing piece of work.

Roma Torre

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