Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman, Hugh Wheeler, Amon Miyamoto, Paul Gemignani, H. B. Wong, Roundabout theater, Studio 54, Musical revival, historical musical, theatre,"> A CurtainUp review, CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Pacific Overtures

. . . I Wear A Bowler Hat.
They Send Me Wine.
The House Is Far Too Grand.
I've Bought A New Umbrella Stand.
Today I Visited The Church Beside The Shrine.
I'm Learning English From A Book.
--- Kayama, the samurai turned diplomat, ready to put feudal Japan behind him and to step into the modern world.
B. D. Wong
B. D. Wong
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Pacific Overtures is a complex, politically charged book musical. Its 1976 premiere at the Winter Garden was more lavishly staged than the just opened revival at Studio 54 directed by Amon Miyamoto, but don't let anything you may have read or heard to the contrary discourage you from putting this on your "must see" list.

This remounting of Mr. Miyamoto's 2002 staging (imported by Lincoln Center from Japan), retains the challenging mix of Noh (masked and costumed performers and dancing), Kabuki (men in male and female roles) and American Musical theater (as embodied in the shockingly relevant modern dress finale). However it now features Asian-American actors to eliminate the need for the super titles. It's a perfect follow-up for last season's Roundabout revival of another under appreciated and daring Sondheim musical, Assassins. (review).

Though Pacific Overtures, like Assassins, has had a problematic history (the more opulently mounted 1976 Broadway premiere had more nay than yea sayers among critics, a 1984 Off-Broadway revival fared better), it has a rich and diverse score that's as lyrical as it is sophisticated. Its book, more timely than ever, is written on both a large and intimate canvas. The broader canvas depicts the opening of feudalistic Japan or "the floating kingdom" to trade with the West, initiated in 1853 by the U.S. Navy under Commodore Perry's command. The more intimate sub-plot follows the friendship between Manjiro (Paolo Montalban), a common fisherman made samurai, and Kayama (Michael K. Lee) a minor samurai made governor -- the reversal of their attitudes towards Westernization is embodied in the witty "I Wear a Bowler Hat").

Mr. Miyamoto's Pacific Overtures is, of course, told from the viewpoint of his culture and how it viewed the Americans. Thus, scenic designer Rumi Matsui has transformed Studio 54's center aisle into a drawbridge raised and lowered over the "moat " separating the Japanese from the would-be traders they view as barbarians. People who saw more of a fleet presence in the original Broadway production -- or even the excellent NYU student version done a few yars ago -- may find this drawbridge arrangement somewhat flat. However, to offset this, there's the transformation of Perry into a giant on stilts, wearing a fright mask and a bizarre wig of metallic curls to stunningly visualize the barbarian image.

B.D. Wong of M. Butterfly fame is the narrator or Reciter who joins into the action as needed. His singing is so-so, but he's very much engaged and engaging. The choreography, also by Mr. Miyamoto, is minimal, but this doesn't short-change the show, given the rich book (actually too top-heavy until the show gets going) and the score and lyrics which like a fine wine, have aged well.

At the Saturday evening press performance I attended, there were several substitutions for the actors listed in the program but this only illustrated that this is less a star vehicle than a stellar ensemble that can switch parts when needed without weakening the performances overall; for example, Alan Muraoka did fine with the gender switching parts usually assumed by other actors (the Dutch Admiral and the Merchant), while Rick Edinger ably handled Muraoka's Grandmother role as well as several other parts usually played by Hoon Lee.

The voices are all strong so that the lyrics come across clear and without the excessively miked sound common to more typical Broadway venues. As in Assassins, which was also ran at this venue, the excellent Paul Gemignani helms the small orchestra which is again positioned in two side loges to play Jonathan Tunick's as always superior orchestrations.

If I had to name one show-stopping number, it would undoubtedly be "Someone in a Tree" which recounts the historic meeting between Commodore Perry and Japanese officials through the eyes of the younger and older self of an unwitting witness (Telly Leung is the boy and Alvin Y.F. Ing is his older self). The Reciter and a warrier (Evan D'Angeles) add to this musical memory piece's complexity.

Standout that it is, "Someone in a Tree" is just one highlight. There's also the melodic "Chrysanthemum Tea" in which the Shogun's mother tries to wake him up to the danger sitting on the other side of the moat and the brothel keeper's comic "Welcome to Kanagawa." As already mentioned, "A Bowler Hat" embodies the simple samurai's transformation into a Westernized diplomat which begins with his donning the then fashionable bowler hat. The arrival of the English, French and Dutch to get their share of the new trading opportunities, is captured in the delightfully Gilbert & Sullivan-like "Please, Hello."

The production values dominated by movable wooden panels are comparatively simple but that simplicity, like Junko Koshino's costumes, is fitting and lovely to see. Brian Mac Devitt imbues all with his usual magical lighting skills.

The major problem with this production is the venue. While the nightclub setting fits the last scene, in which Old Japan give way to a punk rock sensibility, Studio 54 is not an ideal atmosphere for a serious musical. It's also not ideally configured for this show which I think works best with the audience surrounding the stage. Depending on where you sit, you are likely to miss either the entrance of Perry and his aides (if you're sitting upstairs) or the unfurling of the American flag on the ceiling (in certain sections of the orchestra).

If your taste runs to musicals with big stars rather than an ensemble cast, librettos about love rather than political events, and more spectacle-oriented staging, Pacific Overtures may not satisfy on all counts. Even so, you'll have to look long and hard for a show that's more intelligent and original.

Pacific Overtures --all male production, London
Pacific Overture -- all male production, Philadelphia
Pacific Overtures -- imported from Japan and spoken and sung in Japanese at Lincoln Center

Pacific Overtures
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Amon Miyamoto
Music Direction by Paul Gemignani
Cast: B. D. W ong (Reciter), Evan D'Angeles (Observer, Officer and others), Joseph Anthony Foronda (Samurai, Thief and others), Yoko Fumoto (Tamate), Alvin Y. F. Ing (Shogun's Mother and Old Man), Fred Isozaki (Noble), Francis Jue (Madam and Dutch Admiral), Darren Lee (Officer, American Admiral and Sailor), Hoon Lee (Merchant, Commodore Perry and others), Michael K. Lee (Kayama), Ming Lee (Councilor, Emperor and Priest), Telly Leung (Observer, Shogun's companion and others), Paolo Montalban (Manjiro), Alan Muraoka (Councilor and Grandmother), Mayumi Omagari (Kanagawa Girl and Daughter), Daniel Jay Park (Priest, Kanagawa Girl and French Admiral), Hazel Anne Raymundo (Shogun's Wife and Kanagawa Girl), Sab Shimono (Lord Abe), Yuka Takara (Son, Shogun's Wife's Servant and Kanagawa Girl) and Scott Watanabe (Fisherman, Physician and others)
Set Design: Rumi Matsui.
Costume Design:Junko Koshino
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Musical Direction: Paul Gemignani
Orchestra: Woodwinds -- Dennis Anderson; Cello: Deborah Assael; Keyboard #1: Paul Ford; Keyboard #2/Associate Conductor: Mark Mitchell; Violin/Viola: Suzanne Ornstein; Percussion #1: Paul Pizzuti; Percussion #2: Thad Wheeler
Running time: 2 1/2 hours
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 on Broadway
From 11/12/04; opening 12/02/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 3rd press performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea/ Reciter and Company
  • There Is No Other Way/ Observers
  • Four Black Dragons/ Fisherman, Thief, Reciter and Company
  • Chrysanthemum Tea / Shogun, Shoguns Mother, Shoguns Wife, Soothsayer, Priests, Shoguns Companion, Physician, Shoguns Wife's Servant
  • I Will Make a Poem/ Kayama and Manjiro
  • Welcome to Kanagawa/ Madam and Girls
  • Someone in a Tree / Old Man, Reciter, Boy, Warrior
  • Lion Dance /Company
Act Two
  • Please Hello! / Lord Abe; Reciter; American, British, Dutch, Russian and French Admirals
  • A Bowler Hat/ Kayama
  • Pretty Lady/ Sailors
  • Next / Reciter and Company
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