Pacific Overtures

by Bobby McGuire

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 9, 2017

George Takei (center) and cast members from "Pacific Overtures"
George Takei (center) and cast members from "Pacific Overtures"  (Source:Joan Marcus)

No one could ever accuse "Pacific Overtures" of not being relevant.

With themes that include: hostile trade agreements, an isolated nation and insurgencies that follow a forced "friendly" occupation -- not to mention the presence of American warships in Asian seas, the storyline for Stephen Sondheim's 1976 musical about the westernization of Japan, could easily be mistaken for any number of headlines that have dominated the news in recent weeks.

Yet an emphasis on these themes is conspicuously absent in director John Doyle's bare bones production, currently being presented by Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company. And while Doyle does an admirable job in focusing on musical's humanity rather than history, he achieves this with draconian edits to the book and physical production. What's left is not unlike a bowl of ramen without the broth -- substance devoid of flavor.

Based on historical events surrounding American Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition and gunboat diplomacy that brought Japan out of 250 years of isolationism, "Pacific Overtures" tells the story of westernization from the perspective of ordinary Japanese people (fishermen, a thief, prostitutes, a warrior, a boy, etc.) caught up in the events and affected by waves of change that followed.

With the blessings of the show's creators, director Doyle has cut the musical down to an austere 90 minutes. The pageantry written to support the original production's Kabuki style has been eliminated. The cast has been compressed. Several scenes and one memorable song have been eliminated.

The end result puts the focus of the play's historical arc on the intersecting stories of two characters: Kayama (Steven Eng), a minor samurai, and Manjiro (Orville Mendoza) a repatriated fisherman. Both characters unwittingly get caught up in history as they engineer the plan for Commodore Perry's landing in Kanagawa.

Their divergent paths after Perry's landing have the once America-admiring Manjiro steeping himself in Japan's traditional culture, and Kayama, a rising politician, becoming more and more acclimated to new customs. This serves as a metaphor the play's theme of westernization. It also makes the character of The Receiter's (George Takei) presence almost unnecessary.

Although as written, the show doesn't have a production number in the classic sense, it does have numerous complex (and long) songs that convey big chunks of the dramatic action by telling stories from numerous perspectives. The song "Four Black Dragons" tells the Japanese people's horror of seeing Perry's fleet from the viewpoint of a thief and a fisherman. Five unwelcome foreign diplomats strong-arm treaty agreements in the pastiche-heavy "Please Hello." As presented in this simpler version of the show, both numbers feel incongruous, and at times, unnecessary.

Visually, the evening also feels trapped by its simplicity. Ann Hould Ward dresses the ensemble in a collection of drab gray, nondescript contemporary casual wear. The set (designed by Doyle) consists of a long narrow stage of giant scrolls that vivisects the house with the audience on either side. With an entrance on only one side of the stage, the costume-less actors are often left pacing the length of the playing area as though they're part of a fashion show without the fashions.

Admittedly frustrated with this production, I did, however, find some relief about two-thirds of the way through during the song "Someone in a Tree." Here, Doyle employed the use of three fabric scrolls to represent the treaty house in Kanagawa where Commodore Perry was first hosted in 1854. On the other side of the stage, bits of paper fall from the hands of an actor who represents a tree. Far from flashy, it was simple, suggested representation that was absent from the rest of the evening.

Many times, less is more. Other times, less is less. And sometimes you just need to be thrown a bone -- or in this case a few pieces of paper.

"Pacific Overtures" runs through June 18 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street in New York City. For tickets and information, visit www.classicstage.org.