Stephen Sondheim’s innovative 1976 musical Pacific Overtures boasts a lovely score that combines his sophisticated melodies and lyrics with Japanese-inspired elements. Classic Stage Company’s production boasts nine musicians—a lot for its small Off Broadway theater—and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are wonderful.
In every other way, director John Doyle’s staging is minimalist. The show has been shortened from two acts to an intermission-less 90 minutes, the cast has been reduced from 31 to 10, a couple of songs have been cut, and the set and costumes are simple.
This stripped-down, elegantly economical production worked quite well for me. But anyone who remembers Hal Prince’s original staging, which featured lavish Kabuki-inspired costumes and sets, may find it disappointing.
The story comes across clearly. The time is 1853 Japan, then ruled by the Emperor and shogun. The country is old-fashioned, agricultural, and isolationist, barely influenced by the West. It’s a shock when American war ships arrive at Uraga and the unseen Commodore Matthew Perry demands a meeting with Japanese leaders.
Kayama (Steven Eng) is a samurai who is instructed to keep the Americans from landing. A fisherman, Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), who has just returned from America, warns the shogun of Perry’s arrival. “Surely he is the King of the Demons come to strike us blind and to devour our children!” the Reciter (George Takei) says of Perry. “In this darkest hour, who will save Japan?”
Soon other countries are beating on Japan’s door: Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, France, and China. The actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are at their best playing the emissaries in the performance of “Please Hello.” The Englishman’s verses are Sondheim’s skillful versions of Gilbert and Sullivan patter.
Other musical high points include “Welcome to Kanagawa” and “Pretty Lady.” Takei (of Star Trek fame, and more recently Allegiance on Broadway) doesn’t do much singing, but he gives the Reciter a noble presence and doubles as the regal Emperor. The other cast members sing beautifully and do yeomen’s work playing various parts.
Doyle, who famously had Patti LuPone play the tuba as Mrs. Lovett in his hit Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, doesn’t have his actors play instruments here. That’s wise, since they’re awfully busy as it is, singing and acting and navigating the long elevated stage that takes up the center of the theater. (Doyle designed the set, which resembles a giant Japanese scroll.)
With his bare bones staging it seems that Doyle intended to get across John Weidman’s book and Sondheim’s artful music and lyrics as simply and clearly as possible. To my mind he succeeded. Like his fine production of Sondheim’s Passion at CSC in 2013, this no-frills Pacific Overtures makes the case for the greatness of a Sondheim musical that isn’t performed nearly as often as his better-known works.
New York theatergoers are truly lucky to be able to see this strong production as well as the outstanding, even more intimate Sweeney Todd that is playing several blocks away at the Barrow Street Theatre. Take advantage while you can, Sondheim fans!
Pacific Overtures continues through June 18 at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003. Find ticket information here.