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[THEATER] Repatriating the Japanese Sondheim

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  • chiayuan25
    Repatriating the Japanese Sondheim By BEN BRANTLEY The New York Times Published: December 3, 2004 BY rights, this should be the moment to announce that a
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2004
      Repatriating the Japanese Sondheim
      The New York Times
      Published: December 3, 2004

      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 succès 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 théâtres, including an immense American flag that unfurled as a
      claustrophia-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

      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 torn 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

      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

      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.

      'Pacific Overtures'

      Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman;
      additional material by Hugh Wheeler; directed and choreographed by
      Amon Miyamoto. Set and mask design by Rumi Matsui; costumes by Junko
      Koshino; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Dan Moses Schreier;
      production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin; technical supervisor, Steve
      Beers; executive producer, Sydney Beers; orchestrations by Jonathan
      Tunick; musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Presented by the
      Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Ellen
      Richard, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director,
      external affairs, in association with Gorgeous Entertainment. At
      Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan. Running time: 2 hours 30

      WITH: B. D. Wong (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).

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