Stephen Sondheim’s ambitious and stirring musical “Pacific Overtures” has been staged in various sized productions, from its elaborate Broadway original, to interpretations with more limited effects. The latest, a Classic Stage Company offering, is drastically pared down, with an hour cut and some key aspects and songs missing. It is the handiwork of director John Doyle, who has become known as a expert in show-slimming. But it seems that no matter what you do to Sondheim, his genius shines through.
In this new version of the show, for which John Weidman wrote the original book and Sondheim the music and lyrics, the work emerges as very much of a mood piece simply staged. The score is played beautifully by nine musicians with an orchestration by Jonathan Tunick.
With audience members seated on both sides, The set is a long runway that would appear to be an unfurled scroll. George Takei plays The Reciter, who unfolds the tale keyed to the mid-19th century intrusion by Westerners upon Japan’s isolation during centuries of evolvement and tradition.
That Sondheim could make a viable musical out of this is quite a feat. There is also considerable irony as we watch “Pacific Overtures” from today’s perspective. Consider what history has wrought. From being the subject of the West’s so-called opening up of Japan, that country ultimately launched its World War II attack on the West.
Not only is the musical condensed but the staging is of the utmost simplicity, with the delivery of both the music and speech low-keyed. Cast members in several cases play multiple roles. Ann Harada for example excels as both a Madam and a French Admiral. Kark Josef Co plays a fisherman, Americal Admiral and First Sailor. The cast also includes Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, Orville Mendoza, Marc Oka and Thomas Sesma, and the effect is very much that of an ensemble.
The singing has a poetic quality, as does the overall mood as we watch the East-West relationship unfold with ominous import. The various numbers are well integrated into the whole. And yet this comes across as “Pacific Overtures” light, a work that begs to be seen in its original scope. But if someone has never attended other productions and has no basis for comparison, seeing this version can be a gratifying experience. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212-672-4210. Reviewed May 5, 2017.