Review: PACIFIC OVERTURES at Signature Theatre

Director Ethan Heard and company have pulled off something close to miraculous.

By: Mar. 17, 2023
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Review: PACIFIC OVERTURES at Signature Theatre
Jason Ma at center with the company of
Signature Theatre's production of Pacific Overtures.
Photo by Daniel Rader & Shannon Finney.

The clash of cultures -between West and East-is portrayed with poetic and musical flourish in Signature Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's rarefied and insightful Pacific Overtures. This very specialized of musicals should now appeal to a larger audience thanks to the savvy, relevant and comprehensive direction by Ethan Heard.

With an incisive book by frequent collaborator John Weidman (with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) this musical blends the historical narrative with the fascinating lyrics and music of Sondheim. Commodore Perry's invasion (and the subsequent westernization) of Japan in 1853, after 250 years of isolation, is the basis of this uniquely probing musical (Commodore Perry was a U.S. Navy Officer).

The show opens with "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" --- a fascinating opening song as Japan is a country in the middle of the sea---a veritable floating island. (The screens are being painted and life goes on amidst chaos all around). A rotating stage is utilized for a sense of swift movement as the ensemble moves with evocative rhythmic patterns to provide a very subtle choreographic effect. Scenic Designer Chika Shimizu has ingeniously designed a marvel of scenic design with a curtained smaller stage space upstage that adds depth and a more open stage space above (replete with a huge Odaiko).

"Four Black Dragons" was a fiery and sharply directed number that tautly conveyed the impending warships coming to Japan from America.

"Chrysanthemum Tea" is an intricately plotted puzzle-like song-that plays almost like a mini-operetta itself. The standout character here (even in a production that relies on and delivers true ensemble acting) is the character of the mother of the Shogun, sung and played to the devious hilt by Mr. Andrew Cristi.

The song "Poems" subtly showed the Yin and Yang and dualities inherent in nature and in the two pivotal characters, Kayama (Daniel May) and Manjiro (Jonny Lee Jr.). Mr. May and Mr. Lee Jr. are superb at portraying two sides of a coin as their characters reflect on and off each other.

Sondheim's favorite song "Someone in a Tree" is performed with mystery and a sense of pleasurable anticipation. This long, absorbing song - focusing on the same incident as observed/perceived by different observers---- evokes a decidedly "Rashomon-like" effect.

"Please Hello!" is a series of pastiches in which a Sousa March, Gilbert and Sullivan patter, Dutch clog dance, Russian dirge and a French cancan are inventively staged (and which convey vulgar, stereotypical, and nationalistic intent). These obsequious emissaries are caricatured to a refined fare thee well.

Mr. May sings with pride of his "Bowler Hat" in a complex yet compressed look at the onrush of time and the vicissitudes of encroaching westernization.

Directorial finesse is on display in spades in the concluding song "Next" which assays the seemingly systematic and successive stages of what rapid acceleration of technology and commerce can do to a country/culture. From to what I perceived as the bombing of Japan at the end of World War II to hordes of tourists sightseeing, the message is seemingly "apocalyptic" (as Stephen Sondheim has mentioned).

A compelling aspect to the production is that the actors double and/or triple in several roles. The actors and the ensemble perform akin to a Greek Chorus ---especially -the Reciter (a penetrating and observant performance by Jason Ma).

Alexander Tom's music direction is beautifully handled with nine musicians who glean every nuance from this beautiful musical score. Sound design by Eric Norris was excellent.

Haiku-like constructed lyrics and Kabuki are utilized for emphasizing the beauty and flow of the Japanese culture that no amount of "Pacific Overtures" from the emissaries connected with the Commodore Perry expedition can ever dispel.

The interactive space in the round lends itself to a highly efficient space for ritual and inventive theatricality. Director Heard also helmed the inventive and engaging musical staging that inhabits every nook, cranny, aisle and exit of the theatre space (Very creative logistical thinking). One calming scenic effect was the use of delicate etchings of nature that enveloped the theatre's walls only to turn into thin strips of blaring blue neon as the commercialization and westernization of Japan ensued.

Costume and puppet design by Helen Q. Huang was a marvel ---puppets and masks were incorporated theatrically in specific songs with creativity and to exemplify mood and scenes; masks were used as well throughout several scenes.

This production highlights the contradictions in cultures colliding and the "all-too-apparent" willingness for cultures to take advantage of anyone they perceive as weaker and ripe for exploitation. Director Ethan Heard pushes the dramatic envelope further by emphasizing the contrasts between individualism and tradition, dominance and submission, as well as isolation and assimilation.

Signature Theatre's production of Pacific Overtures challenges paradigms and assumptions while stimulating the senses. Director Ethan Heard and company have pulled off something close to miraculous.

Running Time: Two Hours and Twenty minutes including one fifteen minute intermission.

Pacific Overtures runs through April 9, 2023 at the Signature Theatre located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.


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