Lyric's "Pacific Overtures": The Shogun Must Go On

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

They had us with the cherry blossoms. And the screens, so brilliantly lit. “They” would be the stars of the current Lyric Stage production of the musical Pacific Overtures, namely Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland and Lighting Designer Karen Perlow. This is not to say that they are the only outstanding contributors to this show, but they help to overcome some of the challenges this work presents, especially in this most intimate setting. Never has it been more accurate to state that less is more, more or less.

In 1976, Pacific Overtures, a new Sondheim musical bound for Broadway, received its world premiere in Boston. The unusual premise of the play was the Japanese viewpoint of the incursion of American warships under Commodore Perry in 1853 Japan, to initiate trade with a country that had been closed to foreigners for centuries. It offered Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a Book by John Weidman (a wise choice, given that he majored in Eastern Asian History at Harvard). The Broadway mounting lasted only six months, despite ten Tony Award nominations, and remains one of Sondheim's least performed works. Thus it was joyful news for lovers of the show to hear that Lyric would be producing it, Directed by Spiro Veloudos, the company's Producing Artistic Director. About as far from the stereotypical tired businessman's musical as one could get, it demands a great deal from its audiences as well.

Micheline Wu in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the preface to the published version of the play, its creators acknowledge their unusual use of Japanese kabuki theater's three conventions: all roles, male and female, played by male performers; the use of a Reciter who alternately comments on the action, joins it, or speaks in place of one of the other characters; and the presence of a hanamichi or runway, allowing performers to make entrances and exits through the house, as well as the changing of props and costumes onstage by a group of stagehands clad in black (the color of non-existence to the Japanese, literally invisible to them). They also wrote, in the spirit of Japanese haiku poetry, with its distinctive brevity, lack of explicitness, and strict form. While there are, strictly speaking, few pure examples in the text, the form is self-evident, avoiding what Sondheim notes in his monumental work, Finishing the Hat, the dual traps of banality and vagueness leading to “less is less”, keeping it simple (but dense) vs. simplistic, balancing that fine line "between economy of means and penury of ideas".

Carl Hsu & Sam Hamashima in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The current Lyric presentation preserves much of this, while not limiting the performers to men (which the original did until its contemporary finale). In so doing, something is gained and something is lost. Sondheim's “less is more” is one of his three fundamental dicta (the other two being that content dictates form, as well as style, and that God is in the details). His lyrics are lean, making the most out of the least, which he describes as an unforgiving compact form. In that sense, losing the kabuki core element of an all-male principal cast loses significant impact as a deeply imbedded cultural norm. On the other hand, mixed gender casting allows for a broader version of how all people share in the success and failure of a historically crucial encounter. It does make it difficult to tell when actress Lisa Yuen, with no costume change, is speaking as Reciter or Shogun. Lyric's vision is also less physically overwhelming than past lavish productions, gaining intimacy and approachability where others were grander and more removed. The spare but lovely Scenic Design is an example of something gained while other things are lost (not unlike the folk song by Joni Michell, “Both Sides Now”, popularized by Judy Collins), in living everyday. As with much of Japanese culture, what is omitted is as important as what is left in.

Kai Chao in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As it might be put in Japanese poetry, with its three lines with five, seven and five syllables each:

          In style of haiku
         This multi-gender casting
         Is kabuki light

This is obvious in Act I, which consists of unadorned basic vocabulary with an archaic feel, while Act II, beginning with “Please Hello” uses longer words with Latinate roots. The story is narrated by the Reciter, who is both teacher and guide, which begins with the reactions of two men and follows for fifteen years thereafter the relationship between them: Kayama (Carl Hsu), a minor samurai who is instructed to order the ships to leave, and Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), a fisherman recently returned from the U.S. Throughout the tale, there are many basic superstitions, requiring some ingenuity on the part of the Japanese (for example, they avoid having the foreigners touching the land, as they build platforms to prevent it). Much of the story is told in its music: in one comic scene, admirals from five countries pitch their goods via differing musical styles: the U.S. (using Sousa inspired march), England (Gilbert and Sullivan patter), the Netherlands (a clog dance), Russia (a dirge) and France (a can-can). At the heart of the meeting is the song “Someone in a Tree”, wherein an Old Man (Brandon Milardo) complains that when he was a Boy (Karina Wen), he could see everything but heard nothing, while a Warrior (Gary Thomas Ng) grouses that he heard all but saw nothing, setting the stage for a Rashomon allusion.

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As is typically the case in a Sondheim musical, most story lines occur in song. There is the ironic song “Bowler Hat”, the bittersweet evolution of Kayama's gradual Westernization, and the people's cry that they thought the arrival of the warships as “the end of the world”, and the Reciter's powerful answer: “And it was”. Then there is the long song “Chrysanthemum Tea” as the Empress poisons her son: “ships in bay...must be illusions”; there is the fatalistic notion that “the blossom falls on the mountain, the mountain falls on the blossom, all things fall.” The “tipping point” is the final number, “Next!”, with its apocalyptic imposition of Western culture over the haiku. Sondheim once joked that this was “historical narrative as written by a Japanese who's seen a lot of American musicals”.

This version, pared down though it is, is vocally sublime. The talented ensemble (there are eleven performers in fifty-three roles) was composed of Kai Chao, Alexander Holden, Elaine Hom, Brandon Milardo, Gary Thomas Ng, Jeff Song, Karina Wen, and Micheline Wu (who also provided the choreography). The Music Director was Jonathan Goldberg (who is rightly singled out in the program), along with Associate Music Director Matthew Stern (in his Lyric debut, but well known in several other regional companies), with Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, Mask Design by Brynna Bloomfield and “Violence Design” by Ted Hewlett. Still, some of the choices made remain inscrutable, losing that sense of the remote and exotic, the foreign and formalized, as when at the end of Act I, with no visible sense of its being a “lion dance” fizzled, through no fault of Kai Chao who, as Perry, performed it.

Audiences should in the end be thankful to encounter this rare work, through June 16th.

No comments:

Post a Comment