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Pacific Overtures: If You Want to Know Who They Are

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Oddly enough, the tune I found myself humming as I left Studio 54 was not from the melodious score of Pacific Overtures, which I just had the pleasure of hearing in Roundabout's lovingly executed production. No, what I was mindlessly singing while walking up Seventh Avenue was the opening chorus from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. You know: "If you want to know who we are / We are gentlemen of Japan.", which more often than not has been sung by a chorus of white guys dressed and made-up in an attempt to look Japanese.

But I suppose that's a natural reaction. Premiering in 1885, The Mikado was created as reaction to the fascination Britishers had with Japanese fashion and art resulting from the forced establishment of trade relations when America's Commodore Matthew C. Perry threatened bloodshed if the isolated nation would not open its ports, the subject of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) musical. The English fascination wasn't out of legitimate respect for a foreign culture, but it was more like a fad; a precursor to transistor radios and Hello Kitty accessories if you will. Librettist Gilbert caught on to this and created a nonsensical story set in a legendary Japanese village where the kimono-wearing, eye-painted residents played out a thinly-veiled (thinly-screened?) spoof of the British upper crust. Composer Sullivan sneaked in a few references to European tunes from time to time, resulting in white Britishers on the inside playing out their interpretation of Japanese culture on the outside.

As the years went on (Yes, I promise this column is about Pacific Overtures. Just stay with me for a bit.) The Mikado became one of the most popular theatre pieces in the English language (It's still hilarious today.) and various interpretations of this British/Japanese mixture were staged. Sometimes you'd see the characters depicted, by both Asian and white actors, as Japanese wearing swallow-tailed coats, monocles and bowler hats. Now was this a comment on the Western fascination with Japan or the Japanese attempt to assimilate into Western culture? With the original intention of the show somewhat lost through time, more recent racially sensitive stagings have included many modern dress productions with mixed race casts who sing of being from Japan without any attempts to change their appearances.

This awkward attempt to tell a Japanese story within the structure of Western operetta (or musical theatre) brings us to Pacific Overtures. Here's a piece that, although it's certainly not a beloved popular classic, is still highly regarded among many admirers of mature, literate musical theatre. Its story is told utilizing aspects of Japanese theatrical traditions, but they're filtered through musical theatre sensibilities. The original Broadway production, directed by Harold Prince, was mounted with opulence and majesty, but now Japanese director Amon Miyamoto is giving it a quality you normally don't associate with Broadway musicals; a sense of serenity.

This isn't one of those annoying cases where a director who has little regard for musical theatre decides to "make it more like a play" and destroys the heart and soul of the piece. No, Miyamoto is a big fan of American musicals and I think it shows in that he never seems to be working against the material's humor and entertainment value. He's just placing it on top of an unexpected mood. You only need to look at the production's logo to see what he's going for. Let's start with Rumi Matsui's set design, which has the stage surrounded by a stream of water. This feature not only symbolizes the separation of Japan from the rest of the world, but when you add the scenery made of simple wooden screens and large structures suggesting pagodas you have a playing area resembling a meditation garden. Junko Koshino's costumes emphasize uncomplicated solid colors and the whole thing is lit unobtrusively by Brian MacDevitt. It's rather relaxing visually. Until 1945 comes along, of course.

And then there's B.D. Wong, one of Broadway's most warmly charismatic stars as the story-telling Reciter. In sharp contrast to Mako, who originated the role as a commanding, domineering force, Wong is inviting and gracious. He smiles at us a lot. The tragic events of the unfolding plot have long since past and the Reciter seems satisfied to have us Americans learn an uncomfortable part of our history (which many will say parallels our present) with no need to feel guilty for the actions of our past countrymen.

The episodic story is about Japan in general and the continuing plot concerning a young samurai (Michael K. Lee) and the prisoner (Paolo Montalban) who bond over their horrifying assignment to tell the sailors upon the four American warships to go back home, only to eventually find themselves on opposite sides of their country's cultural transformation, is not the emotional center of the piece. That lies more in the work of seasoned pros like Alvin Ing who delightfully reprises his original role as the Shogun's mother and is quite touching as the old man remembering the way he peeked in on that first historic meeting as a young boy in the Act I showpiece "Someone in a Tree". Likewise, Sab Shimono, who originated the role of Manjiro, the prisoner, in 1976, returns to lend his humor and gentle dignity to the role of Lord Abe.

This may not be a perfect production of Pacific Overtures, but it certainly is a charming and interesting one, and considering the recent productions of American musicals we've seen directed by foreign-born artists, Miyamoto gets high marks from me. I wonder how he'd do with Oklahoma!?

 

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: B.D. Wong, Bottom: Wong (center) and company

 


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