A "Pacific Overtures" lost at sea? There is a rough, unsteady quality to the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, a show that can be as delicate and demanding as any musical the composer has ever written.
Which is strange since the production, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Studio 54, is a direct descendent of a highly praised, Japanese-language version that director Amon Miyamoto brought from Japan to the United States in 2002 for brief runs in Washington, D.C, and New York.
The Roundabout adaptation uses a cast of Asian-Americans and, surprisingly, something is missing in the musical's return to its home turf.
Not that there aren't pleasures to be found, but this revival seems coarser and not as secure as other productions of the show, particularly director Gary Griffin's immaculate, small-scale version done in Chicago and London.
This latest incarnation is midsize and middling, finding its strengths in the emotional qualities of the score, one of Sondheim's most ambitious, right up there with "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park With George." The production doesn't look particularly lavish, although designer Rumi Matsui's movable tan panels and Junko Koshino's colorful costumes are often lovely to see.
"Pacific Overtures," which has a book by John Weidman (with an assist from Hugh Wheeler), concerns the opening of Japan to the West, starting in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry. It chronicles the changes to the culture and its people, primarily through two men: Kayama, a poor fisherman turned samurai, who embraces Western ways, and Manjiro, a sailor, who has seen the outside world but who returns to fiercely reconnect with traditional Japanese culture.
The disparity between the two men is seen most succinctly in the song "A Bowler Hat," as Kayama, portrayed by Michael K. Lee, sheds his native identity for a more Western appearance.
And there is an equally affecting moment in "I Will Make a Poem," a simple, haiku-like duet for the two men as they each sing of the woman they love. Lee and Paolo Montalban, who plays Manjiro, handle the number beautifully.
B.D. Wong makes for a genial, unassuming Reciter, the show's nominal narrator. Wong's affable personality is more tour guide than forceful personality, and he tends to get lost in this over-busy production.
Part of the problem is Weidman's book, a tale of epic scale, in which the often convoluted story dwarfs the characters, even the fisherman and the sailor. And that busyness hampers the musical's ensemble numbers which often come across as raggedly overacted. Particularly unsuccessful are the show's few moments of musical comedy. "Welcome to Kanagawa," sung by a madam and a bevy of geisha girls eager to greet sailors, falls flat in its obviousness.
And what should be the comic highlight of the show - a parade of American, British, Dutch, Russian and French admirals - collapses in incomprehensibility, a major crime in any Sondheim musical. His lyrics for each of these "barbarians" are witty comments on their nationalities, but none of them come through at Studio 54.
The last number of "Pacific Overtures" has been updated since the show first opened on Broadway in 1976 and where it ran for about five months. The musical finale is ominously called "Next," a hard-driving pean to what Japan has accomplished late in the 20th century.
"Let the pupil show the master," goes one lyric as the country finds its place in contemporary life. Japanese successes in the United States - from Sony to Toyota to New York Yankees superstar Hideki Matsui –are enumerated by punk, trendily black-clad dancers, looking as if they would be right at home in Studio 54 in its previous incarnation as a disco. It's a frantic ending for an often shaky production.
Even after 30 years, "Pacific Overtures," given a provocative revival by the Roundabout at Studio 54, still seems Stephen Sondheim's most audacious musical.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning "Sunday in the Park With George" was just as ambitious, but it had a smidgen of a love story, making it more accessible than this musical about the way 19th-century Japan was revolutionized by its first confrontation with American and European commercial culture.
What was more daring than the quasi-intellectual nature of the theme was Sondheim's musical structures, many of which have a repetitive quality that suggested ritual, the reflection of a society yoked to tradition. One duet, for example, is based on haiku.
The unconventional structures represent a testing of what the Broadway musical could do, an assertion that no challenge was beyond its scope.
The second act begins with a witty number parodying 19th-century European musical forms as the great powers assault the bewildered Japanese. Near the end of the act, several British sailors sing the closest thing to a standard tune as they woo a frightened woman, "Pretty Lady."
The current production is directed by Amon Miyamoto, whose production with an all Japanese cast was featured at the Lincoln Center Festival two years ago.
Paradoxically, it is far less exotic than the original production by Harold Prince, which had a kind of reverence for Japanese culture quite absent here.
The sets, for example, have a flatness that probably reflects a matter-of-fact understanding of how such things work rather than the diffident awe of the foreigner.
There is a nice moment when the screens that initially reflect the stability of Japan are tilted and swayed to suggest impending chaos. Nevertheless the overall texture is often coarse, and the sense of contrast between "modern" Japan and the idealized past less stark.
The show is an ensemble effort, and the all-Asian cast is extremely strong, especially Michael K. Lee, Paolo Montalban, Alvin Y.F. Ing (reprising his original role as the Shogun's mother) and Sab Shimono. Francis Jue is extremely funny as the chief welcomer to Kanagawa.
B.D. Wong, in a host of roles, is engaging if not commanding.
Jonathan Tunick has redone the orchestrations, which convey a powerful sense of Asia with smaller resources.
Whatever its weaknesses, it is always thrilling to see and hear this majestic score.
There are so many layers of style, idiom and substance to the new production of "Pacific Overtures," unveiled last night at Studio 54, that it comes almost gift-wrapped, perhaps for Christmas.
This musical has always been the trickiest of the Stephen Sondheim canon to stage - or, if you like, to load and fire. And this new, genuinely Japanese staging by Japanese director Amon Miyamoto, like so many before it, goes off half-cocked.
"Pacific Overtures" tells the story of Commodore Matthew Perry's armed but peaceful 1853 intervention on behalf of the U.S. government to open trade with Japan after 250 years of self-induced isolation.
The trouble - and it was apparent even in Harold Prince's brilliant 1976 production - is that John Weidman's fascinating but complex book is too heavy for the delicately designed bookcase provided by Sondheim's music and lyrics.
Following Sondheim's lead, Prince devised a Kabuki-style performance that told this vital East/West encounter through Japanese eyes but using Western eyeglasses.
This was the first layering, which made the artistic outcome so rich and difficult. Sondheim's Japonaiserie pastiche music rightly marinates the whole venture.
Yet the actual musical numbers are set-pieces or illustrative vignettes: quaint, charming often extraordinarily beautiful, dropped in to demonstrate Weidman's theme of Western imperialism and, in a brief coda, Japan's 20th-century economic revenge.
Miyamoto's Japanese staging, this new and final layering, moves the show into the simpler, deeper theatrics of the Noh theater.
The basic lines of Miyamoto's production, with its sliding shoji screens and fluid movement, were seen two years ago, when he brought his Tokyo production of "Pacific Overtures" to the Lincoln Center Festival.
Where it excelled then, as it does now, is in highlighting the marvelous gemiike short stories the composer has embedded in the text.
These are Broadway history-makers - a journey expressed through haiku poems, or a Japanese samurai changing his whole identity slowly bit by bit by adopting Western dress, or three Cockney sailors disastrously misunderstanding local custom and mistaking shy innocence for a whore's coy flirtatiousness.
These precise miniatures - essays in ivory-cawed delicacy - are the joy of "Pacific Overtures," culminating in the great "Someone in a Tree" scene where two secret witnesses to the East/West treaty at the heart of the story, describe, with failing memories, a lost past.
The performances even here are not always equal to Sondheim's material. The most disappointing is B.D. Wong's Narrator, who lacks weight and presence, but the entire ensemble appears more nimble than impressive.
Even so, in the final count, the fault of this "Pacific Overtures" is, as ever, "Pacific Overtures" itself. There's little true emotive passion here.
The show's realization never seems able to match the imaginative power of its concept. And it's not just a matter of East not meeting West, but more of Weidman not meeting Sondheim.
By rights, this should be the moment to announce that a Japanese director named Amon Miyamoto has conquered America - or at least that small but very glittery swath of America called Broadway. Mr. Miyamoto's production of "Pacific Overtures," Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 1976 musical about American gunboat diplomacy as visited on 19th-century Japan, opened last night at Studio 54. And if any musical in this uncertain season could be anticipated as a guaranteed succes d'estime, it was surely this one.
True, the daring exercise in cultural crossbreeding that is "Pacific Overtures," in which Kabuki formality meets Broadway razzmatazz, has rarely been a favorite of even devoted Sondheimites. And when it first came to Broadway almost 30 years ago, many critics found it a show of blurred and confusing identity.
But Mr. Miyamoto had braved "Pacific Overtures" before in a Japanese-speaking version for the New National Theater of Tokyo. And when that production showed up as part of the Lincoln Center summer festival in 2002, it appeared that at last the key had been discovered to unlock the tantalizing potential of an elusively beautiful work.
Now Mr. Miyamoto and "Pacific Overtures" have returned with an English-speaking, predominantly Asian-American cast, which makes distracting supertitles unnecessary. The show's sets, costumes and governing concept remain more or less the same. Yet unlike the New National Theater of Tokyo production, which was remarkable for its conviction and cohesiveness, this latest incarnation from the Roundabout Theater Company has the bleary, disoriented quality of someone suffering from jet lag after a sleepless trans-Pacific flight. Something has definitely been lost in the retranslation.
This is especially discouraging since it was the Roundabout that last spring so successfully resurrected at Studio 54 another culturally complicated, widely misunderstood Sondheim jewel, "Assassins." And let it be said that like that production, this "Overtures" does give beguiling due to Mr. Sondheim's silken, silvery score, with orchestrations by his longtime collaborator Jonathan Tunick and musical direction by Paul Gemignani.
But what's happening onstage has the aura of a crisis of confidence. The cast members, led by B. D. Wong (of "M. Butterfly" on Broadway and "Law & Order: SVU" on television) as a wryly omniscient Narrator, are a fresh and ardent group. Yet they often inspire the kind of fingers-crossing anxiety that parents feel while watching their school-age children in holiday pageants.
An uneasy tentativeness pervades the stage like a mist of perspiration. There are fine singers among the performers, and they all know their lines and movements. But the oxygen of creative confidence only occasionally seems to reach their brains. Even as they sing sweetly and smile engagingly, they appear to be asking themselves, "What am I doing here?"
Reviewers of the original production thought the show as a whole needed to ask the same question of itself. The daring ambition of "Pacific Overtures," first directed (and coaxed into shape) by the titanic Harold Prince, lay in its desire to show the impact of the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's American expedition to the still feudally insular Japan entirely through Japanese eyes.
With the great designer Eugene Lee inflating traditional Kabuki scenery to standards of Broadway opulence and Mr. Sondheim incorporating the Japanese pentatonic scale into his signature moody melodiousness, the show might be thought of as a theatrical forerunner to fusion cuisine. It suited the palates of few American reviewers, including Walter Kerr of The New York Times, who asked of the show's Japanese style and subject, "Why tell their story their way when they'd do it better?"
Some 20 years later, Mr. Miyamoto, who made his name in Japan as a lively director of Western musicals and operas, picked up the gauntlet that Kerr so suggestively threw down. The Tokyo production at Avery Fisher Hall in the summer of 2002 brought a reconceptualizing gust of authenticity to "Pacific Overtures."
In exchanging the usual fairy-book delicacy for a style both more robust and austere (more Noh than Kabuki), Mr. Miyamoto's version seemed to clarify rather than distort the intentions of the show's original creators. And at a feverishly patriotic moment in American history, Mr. Miyamoto provided a sobering outsider's perspective on Western imperialism. He made his point with some jaw-dropping coups de theatres, including an immense American flag that unfurled as a claustrophobia-inducing canopy and a gigantic, gruesomely masked Commodore Perry, who stalked up a 60-foot ramp as the ultimate invading barbarian.
The effigy-like Commodore and the outsize flag are still around, but they don't have the same impact. This has much to do with the more confining environs of Studio 54. While the designer Rumi Matsui has scaled down the scenery (the 60-foot ramp has shrunk by at least three-quarters), she needed to reconceive more fully her approach for a differently configured space.
Seated close to the stage, I didn't notice the American flag until some time after it appeared. When the Commodore stood on the ramp, only a few feet away, he seemed less like a monster to fear than a prize winner at a costume party. And my sightlines were such that I was never even aware of the pool of water that frames the stage until the second act. (In other words, you might be better off in the balcony.)
Nor is the general style of performance suited to intimacy. The choreography, which mixes ritualized ceremonial movement with cute Western revue-style posturing, feels clunky instead of invigorating this time around. And the performers seem similarly tom between conflicting styles. This is true even of Mr. Wong, as the Reciter who annotates the action onstage. As always, Mr. Wong is an engaging presence, but his easy-going, winking charm provides little narrative urgency.
Michael K. Lee, as the timid samurai swept into a leading role in world events, and Paolo Montalban, as the bold fisherman who becomes his friend, have agreeable voices and a purely neutral charm. Like most of the cast, they seem unclear as to whether they are playing proper characters or stylized archetypes. It is crucial in "Pacific Overtures" that such a choice be made.
A few ensemble members find a more comfortable approach - notably Sab Shimono as a fierce but bewildered Shogun's councilor and Alvin Y. F. Ing, who appears in drag as the Shogun's mother. (Both men appeared in the original Broadway production.) This means Mr. Ing leads the deliciously sinister "Chrysanthemum Tea," a classic of Sondheim deviltry, in which a mother decorously and systematically poisons her son.
That song, by the way, is still playing in my head, which suggests that die-hard Sondheim fans (and yes, I am one) should see this "Pacific Overtures," for all its imperfections. In working with an Asian musical vocabulary, Mr. Sondheim discovered techniques he would refine in subsequent works. You can sense the marvelously involving, scene-setting briskness that he would later use in the opening of "Into the Woods" in the introductory number here, "The Advantage of Floating in the Middle of the Sea."
And then there's the transporting "Someone in a Tree," which is beautifully rendered here. Sung by Japanese witnesses on the periphery of the epochal meeting of Perry and the Japanese lords in 1853 – a boy in a tree, his older self and a guard below the raised tent in which the meeting occurred – the number is one of those great Sondheim pieces that at first seem to aim at the mind and then shoot straight through the heart.
Like the first act finale of "Sunday in the Park With George," in which a painting by Seurat comes together piece by piece, "Someone in a Tree" is a wondering anthem to how fragments of vision can coalesce into a transcendent whole. As sung here it hasn't lost its power to raise goosebumps. But it also offers an implicit criticism on the lack of other shiver-making moments in this production.
The force and weight of any story, Mr. Sondheim's lyrics suggest, have less to do with its raw material than how it is assembled and from what perspective. Mr. Miyamoto surely has the ingredients to make magic again from "Pacific Overtures." But this time he only rarely gathers his fragments into the ineffable harmony that Mr. Sondheim celebrates.
The improbable and miraculous journey of "Pacific Overtures" continues at Studio 54, of all preposterous locations, where Stephen Sondheim's least-likely Broadway musical opened last night in a slow-starting but thrilling cross-cultural revival by Japanese director Amon Miyamoto.
How right it feels, finally. This is, after all, a show about the opening of Japanese trade routes by Commodore Perry in 1853, seen through the eyes of the Japanese. When Hal Prince directed the 1976 premiere with massive Kabuki and Broadway strokes, the work seemed a daring but overblown curiosity. Subsequent productions, including a dazzling, reduced version Off-Broadway in 1984, established the resilience of its exquisite songs and delicious political ironies.
Until Miyamoto brought Tokyo's New National Theatre to the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002, however, we had felt uneasy about its cultural tourism - the presumption of an American entertainment spin on a seismic 19th-centuty invasion of a distant people. At last, we were able to see the Japanese ideas of our idea about their ideas about Perry's uninvited visit to the fiercely isolated, peacefully ritualized "floating kingdom. Unfortunately, the show was in Japanese. Even with supertitles, this was a "Pacific Overtures" to appreciate more than adore.
How smart for the Roundabout Theatre Company to ask Miyamoto to rethink the material with Asian-American actors and Broadway punch. Japan's star director of Western musical theater has made this hybrid-of-a-hybrid into an authentic adventure. With updates as pertinent as Japan "joining their American allies" in Iraq, even Studio 54 - recent home to "Cabaret" and Sondheim's "Assassins" – turns its haute-disco history into a useful cultural artifact. The actors begin with attitude as glaring as the silver zippers on their hip black costumes.
B.D. Wong - with commanding, endearing bemusement but no singing voice - is the Reciter, our guide through the rituals and the history of the country where, for 250 years, foreigners were forbidden.
The modern people disappear behind revolving screens and reappear in the grand hyperconstructed silks of the shoguns, the samurai and the puppet emperor, not to mention the commoners' modest wraps. Rumi Matsui's sets are a serene horizontal expanse of blond wood, with the elevated East-West orchestra conducted by invaluable Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani.
Matsui's witty and gorgeous costumes include a giant Commander Perry on stilts with the big-nose Noh mask of a demon and, like the other U.S. sailors, a wig of gigantic metallic curls.
There always has been too much Weidman talk and not enough Sondheim music in the first part of the show, a weakness that all the stylized spectacles and delicate humanity of Miyamoto cannot solve. We highly recommend patience.
Before long, those clownish American ghouls will stride from the audience on the hanamichi, or ramp, and a huge flag will take over the ceiling of the theater. According to tradition, some men play women - most delightfully, Alvin Y.F. Ing as the Shogun's mother, part of the stunned court in Sondheim's deliciously stubborn "Chrysanthemum Tea." The same actor transforms later into the Old Man entrusted with "Someone in a Tree," often cited as Sondheim's most personal song - the philosophy of history in a rumba rhythm.
Michael K. Lee plays a lowly fisherman volunteered into dangerous power and seduced into materialism with the devastatingly witty and tragic "A Bowler Hat." In relevant contrast, Paolo Montalban as an Americanized prisoner begins with Western notions and learns through bitter experience to fear their impact. Lest we not believe him, there is the unstylized horror when the sweet British sailors close in on a woman in "Pretty Lady."
For all the exotic, growling declamations and Eastern microtones, we are stunned by the surprising timeliness of this West-eats-East cautionary tale of progress and globalization. When the Japanese are told, "Don't be afraid, we merely want to trade," it sounds like famous last words.