[THEATER] Repatriating the Japanese Sondheim
- 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 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
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.
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).