New York City Theater
Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54
Like any array of sushi offerings, "Pacific Overtures" is a mixed selection-some offerings most appealing, others a total turn-off.
Certainly this current revival of the musical has the Big Names-Stephen Sondheim as composer/lyricist and B. D. Wong as the star. But it is a strange and different musical brew which Sondheim has concocted, remaining true, as he does, to the Kabuki style and music, and one not easily accepted by Broadway theatergoers. Hence the show's mixed reception when it opened on Broadway in 1976. But now "Pacific Overtures" arrives again, perhaps to more receptive and more cosmopolitan audiences.
(It is interesting that directors assume that all Asians look alike to New York audiences. They have no hesitancy in casting any one of Asian background in Japanese roles. Or, to be fair, it may be that the pool of Asian actors is limited. A Chinese or Korean is still more believable in a Japanese role, than a Caucasian. Thus a very eclectic cast of Asian background in this current show.)
The show has much to commend it. For starters, it is a valuable piece of east-west history. John Weidman's book traces the 120-year-old story of Japan's metamorphosis from a small isolated nation to an international power. When U.S. Commodore Perry first arrived on Japan's doorstep in 1853, his arrival threw the country into turmoil. But though the samurai were determined to fight off the invaders, swords were no match for cannons. And progress, if it can be called that, would not be halted. Soon other nations followed, eager to exploit the trading possibilities of this "backward" country. But Japan, as we well know, is the best of borrowers, eventually beating the westerners at their own game, adapting the western scientific know-how and making it their own. Thus have the conquerors been conquered.
"Pacific Overtures" mixes the personal with the panoramic. The lives of little men are traced, as the historic events unfold. In the most appealing scene, the Shogan, a pampered boy who cannot make decisions, is worked over by his mother. She urges him, in delicious Sondheim lyrics, to determine what to do about Perry's ships in the harbor. Other scenes, unfortunately, are less sprightly-in fact, dull and uninspired. But the action picks up in the second act, giving one the full impact of Japan's fall and rise. It is history made known and felt as it never can be in the pages of a book.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 4, 2004