BWW Review: PACIFIC OVERTURES: Lyric Stage's Sondheim Finale
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman, Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Jonathan Goldberg; Choreography, Micheline Wu; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Mask Design, Brynna Bloomfeld; Violence Design, Ted Hewlett; Props Artisan, Cesara Walters; Associate Music Director, Matthew Stern; Assistant to the Director, Michael Hisamoto; Wardrobe Supervisor/Assistant to the Costume Designer, Tobi Rinaldi; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Geena M. Forristall
Performances through June 16 at The Lyric Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com
Over the course of the last twenty years, Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos has been a man with a mission. During that time period, he has systematically presented the works of composer Stephen Sondheim at the Lyric Stage Company, beginning with Assassins in the 1998-1999 season, and concluding with Pacific Overtures to wrap up the 2018-2019 season. In spite of the daunting nature of the undertaking, Veloudos has tackled it with gusto and proven himself to be a meritorious interpreter of the Sondheim canon. Collaborating with Music Director Jonathan Goldberg, Choreographer Micheline Wu, and his familiar roster of designers, Veloudos recreates the musical in his own vision, downsizing what originated as a behemoth show to fit the parameters of the Lyric's thrust stage.
Under the direction of Harold Prince, Pacific Overtures opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on January 11, 1976, and closed on June 27, 1976, after 193 performances. Despite receiving mixed reviews and its comparatively short run, it garnered nominations for ten Tony Awards, winning two (Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design). It is seen by some as a prime example of Sondheim's musical genius for the quasi-Japanese style of the score, and Prince staged the original in Kabuki style, with men playing women's roles. Veloudos flips the script and cast Lisa Yuen as the Reciter (storyteller), normally played by a man, and drastically reduces the number in the ensemble, with ten actors portraying 53 characters.
The story is set in Japan in 1853 as imperialist America seeks to open up the isolationist country to trade. President Millard Fillmore sends Commodore Matthew Perry (Kai Chao) and a fleet of four ships as his emissary, but despite their "pacific" intent, they are viewed as barbarians in the eyes of the Japanese. A low-ranking samurai named Kayama (Carl Hsu), promoted to Prefect of Police, and Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), an imprisoned Japanese fisherman who was educated in America, are charged with the task of trying to turn away the warships, but without success. The Americans come ashore with a treaty, basically leaving the Japanese no choice but to sign and accept their terms, opening the floodgates for a raft of other countries to initiate trade relations, as well. The second act spans the time period from 1854 to the present, showing the country's painful transition from isolationism to Westernization.
Goldberg plays piano and conducts three additional musicians in the orchestra, making the challenging score sound effortless. The musical numbers carry most of the storytelling responsibility and the collection of voices in the ensemble is top notch. The music is decidedly unusual and it is unlikely that the audience will be singing any of these tunes on the way out of the theater. In keeping with the Japanese flavor, choreographer Wu (Tamate, Kayama's wife) performs an intricate fan dance and Chao is impressive in the Commodore's "Lion Dance," a blend of ballet and martial arts.
Janie E. Howland (scenic design) employs a large, red traditional Japanese gate to frame the stage, with a background of five beautifully painted panels that swivel to alter the scenery, augmented by Karen Perlow's effective lighting design. Gail Astrid Buckley dresses the cast in exquisite costumes, and Brynna Bloomfeld provides an array of interesting masks worn by the invaders. Ted Hewlett (violence design) is responsible for authentically and safely staging the fight scenes, Cesara Walters (props artisan) procures the necessary equipment, and Andrew Duncan Will capably handles sound design.
Veloudos is fortunate to have a cast with range and flexibility, and he fits them well into a variety of roles, without gender restrictions. Alexander Holden's rich vocals, Gary Thomas Ng's spot on female portrayals, and Jeff Song's (Lord Abe) ineffectual functionary are highlights. Elaine Hom, Brandon Milardo, and Karina Wen complete the ensemble. In a show about progress, the casting of an all-Asian company marks progress within the Boston theater scene, although it is nothing new for the Lyric Stage to champion diversity. Many of these actors have other regional credits and should be able to build on their achievements in Pacific Overtures.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (The Full Cast of Pacific Overtures)