Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Amon Miyamoto
A Production of The Roundabout Theatre
Studio 54 / West 54th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

I think you should see "Pacific Overtures". It’s a magnificent musical, always has been. I just want to say that at the top, and I’ll explicate it later; because what I have to say next might otherwise dissuade you.

When the original production of "Pacific Overtures" opened on Broadway in 1976, the number of musicians in the pit numbered 22.

In the current revival at Studio 54 the number is six.

Six is not so bad, not off Broadway where it’s a luxury. Especially not when you conceive your score, orchestrations and production for a more intimate venue.

On Broadway, especially with a richly composed score, six is madness.

Original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has done the new reduction and, unusually for him, even included two electric keyboards in the mix in order to supplement the lack of acoustic instruments. From what I could hear, I don't believe they were put to optimum use, and -- as one whose livelihood is often tied to the use of his own synthesized symphonic orchestrations -- I also think yet another synth would have been much more useful than any of the single woodwind, violin and cello players, whose acoustic authenticity sounds starved for lack of group support. Yet I don't mean that as criticism. It’s hard to believe for those of us who grew up worshipping Tunick as the grand innovator, but he now represents the old guard and I can see where he tried to have a foot in both camps, desiring to honor some of the original sonorities while filling out the rest as best he could.

Can you damn him for it? Hardly. Can you fault composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim for maintaining his usual admirable loyalty to collaborators and entrusting the reduction to Tunick rather than a new-age software-sample whiz kid? I think not. Should we assume that the Roundabout Theatre Company kicked in as much dough as the current depressive economy allows? Boy, I'd sure like to.

I don’t know that anybody’s "the villain." All I know is, when one of the most richly composed scores in the canon cannot be represented save with a thin, unsupported sound, something, somewhere is wrong.

This is the same production–directed by Amon Miyamoto–that, imported from Japan, performed in Japanese, played the Lincoln Center summer festival two years ago–with a full orchestra. When Ben Brantley’s New York Times review discussed a feeling of uncertainty to this incarnation, seeming to indict the cast, though not quite sure why things were amiss, I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.

Having since seen the revival, my analysis is that Mr. Brantley, despite a decent enough ear, is non-musician enough not to understand the psychological impact that lacking a full orchestra has on one’s sense of sure footing. He's wrong about the production, which is every bit as excellent as it was at Lincoln Center.

But of course it opens insecurely, because that percussive, aggressively muscular opening number sounds so emaciated coming from the six piece band…and subsequently, the actors, who are totally blameless, seem unsupported.

In a musical, the orchestra is the safety net…and if the net isn’t confidently in place, naturally you get nervous about the actors. But not because they’re inadequate. Rather because they’re inadequately protected. And believe me, you feel it.

Once you become reluctantly philosophical about the things you can’t change, though, "Pacific Overtures" kicks into high gear. Here’s some of what I wrote about the Japanese-language version of this production:

The original, secret conceit of the authors–composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman–was to write their piece, about the Westernization of Japan, as if it were penned by a Japanese writer had come to America and learned about musicals.

But now to see this work actually presented from a Japanese point of view (performed in Japanese to boot, by not just an all-Asian cast, but an all-Japanese cast) was quite stirring. Depending more upon the sparer Noh tradition than the more opulently designed kabuki that informed the original Harold Prince production, Amon Miyamoto’s staging calls more upon the imagination of the audience and exists in a sparer physical universe.

For much of the production–and I do not mean this in any condescending fashion–there is something just plain adorable about the experience, watching this troupe of Japanese players (from Tokyo’s New National Theatre) so enthusiastically performing an American musical about them and their cultural dilemma. But slowly, something more profound works its way into the viscera…small touches, added motifs…such as the reaction of the recurring character Manjiro to the deaths that are a consequence of the shifting culture…such as the real anger and determination that sets in as Japan enters the modern world in earnest…so that the number "Next", originally conceived as an ironic industrial, becomes much more the genuine threat its authors wanted it be. Mr. Miyamoto even finds a starkly powerful, wordless way, to acknowledge Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the number:

The ensemble, entering the military fray toward WWII, are costumed in military garb, drilling with rifles, and as the music hits a peak–

–there is an explosion–smoke–all fall down–beams and supports on the set slowly collapse–and there is silence–bodies everywhere, the guns gone, no movement–

–and then, quietly, singing starts again, backing up a chorus, picking up where they left off, the bodies no longer quiet, and then they begin to rise, the uniforms being stripped away for sleeker, more modern uniforms, back tops, black pants and a hard-driving attitude…and it renders what was, in the original, a brilliant editorial comment, into a moment that is absolutely chilling…and strangely touching.

It’s a helluvan ending for a first rate rethinking of an underappreciated masterpiece.

The difference, seeing the piece performed in English by a cast of Asian Americans is a subtle one, because it’s a little bit as if the Japanese filtering has gone back through the Broadway filter; what has been reclaimed is the edge of performers to whom musical theatre is not an inherited, but a native language–further sharpened by a return to the original language.

One of the biggest changes, that I don’t remember being as vivid a choice in Japanese, is the attitude of the Reciter: the narrator-commentator who guides us through the evening. As originated by Mako, there was a good deal of anger and outrage fueling the portrayal. But B. D. Wong’s new millennium take is more easygoing, as if he chooses to let irony speak for itself.

Also a little different is the sound of the English language itself. In 1974, many Asian-American actors of adult age still retained first, second, third generation ties to their immigrant heritage, and a number of the ensemble delivered their roles with the lilt of Eastern accents. In 2004, those accents have given way to three decades of assimilation–so the very sound of the words creates a more intimate experience. Not better or worse than the original production, just a fascinating and inevitable reflection of the new world. Perhaps more than any musical I know, "Pacific Overtures" can’t help but mold to here-and-now in any era that revives it, because inextricably woven into its fabric is the notion of a changing world view. (As a sidebar: an especially nice perk is that two of the company represent the previous NY incarnations of the show; Sab Shimono, Broadway’s original Manjiro is now Lord Abe; and Francis Jue, from the 1984 off-Broadway revival [directed by Fran Soeder] currently plays the Madam ["Welcome to Kanagawa"] and recreates his Dutch Admiral ["Please Hello"].)

There aren’t many musicals I care about more than this one…maybe because I know that, due to its unconventional subject matter and agenda, it’s a long shot for commercial longevity, and any appearance it makes will be rare and precious.

So cherish it while it’s here.

Just listen to the album first, so you can attend with the proper orchestra in your head…

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