by Margaret Croyden

Pacific Overtures Yet Again

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Pacific Overtures Yet Again
The Roundabout Theater Company
Music and Lyrics by Steven Sondheim,
Book by John Weidman
Studio 54 on West 54th street
opened December 2,2004
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden, December 7, 2004

This may is the third reincarnation of "Pacific Overtures." What brings it here yet again is the Japanese director, Amnon Miyamoto, who had previously staged the show at the New National Theater in Tokyo. The producers spun his production as a new version, since it is seen through the eyes of a Japanese which apparently had not been the case in the original undertaking. (Harold Prince directed it first in 1976). But sad to say, I see nothing new in this rendition. Supposedly the director has used Noh theater as a jumping off place but the relationship, if any, seems odd. From my knowledge of Noh when I was in Japan and saw Noh plays, they were the simplest, purest, clearest form of theater--where less is more . This is certainly not the case in "Pacific Overtures," where more is more.

The story: Japan in 1853 was an insular, provincial country unknown to the rest of the world. Their credo against foreigners and tight control of all walks of life have been well documented, but all was severely challenged when the American Commodore Matthew Perry dared to land on Japanese territory, which began the opening up of Japan to the West. The book by John Weidman clearly expresses the foibles and the backwardness of the Japanese and at the same time, paints the Americans as grotesques monstrous puppets dressed in ugly masks with hair sprouting all over their faces. The author and the director give both sides its due and its foolishness, which the director clearly demonstrates through satire, farce, and sometimes musical comedy conventions.

While the historical aspects of the story are interesting, the problem is not with the tale, but with the direction and the music. Sondheim is worshipped in some quarters around Broadway. (Full disclosure: I am not one of his worshippers). To me, the show has very little music; mostly there are lyrics. And they are clever; they rhyme, they are funny, they are appropriate, they are satirical. So that is all to the good. But there is no real music. There are some attempts at so called tunes, if you can call it tunes, but no melodies, certainly nothing memorable. And that is Sondheim--great on lyrics, which incidentally are sometimes painfully repetitive, but weak on music.

Then there is the direction. Noh, or no Noh, "Pacific Overtures" is a mish mash of styles and much of it is a mess. The scenery, with its endless rows of plain slats (representing Japanese screens, I suppose, but why not use real ones) is continually being moved. But don't ask why. Then there is a pool of water on stage somewhere but don't ask me where. I never saw it, but I was told. How can I have seen it, when the management crowded every living soul neck to neck, shoulder to shoulder on some awful uncomfortable armless chairs around small tables to illustrate that we are in a cabaret. Since the auditorium is not rigged, if a big guy sits in front of you, and to the side of you, and all around you, you have had it. So why should I have seen the silly pool of water somewhere down stage.

And then there is the imitation Japanese style, every cliche and every stereotype is on that stage: husky, harsh Japanese voices for the Shogun; sweet soprano voices for the women who of course are pushed aside by the men; every actor sits on his or her haunches; every actor is in Buddha position with hands sitting just right below the waist; and of course the fancy costumes, which I secretly hoped would be elaborate but for the most part seemed hired from the racks. In fact the entire mise en scene looked like a schlock Broadway interpretation of the Japanese. So it was indeed a surprise to find that a respectable Japanese director was in charge.

B. D. Wong, the leading actor, the reciter in the piece, is a likeable, charming man. He did his best with the material. But what did he have to work with? Narration. And sometimes he slipped into a role. But narration is narration and it tends to become monotonous. So Mr. Wong had a thankless job. Since his songs and singing style were colorless, he needed to be startling and versatile. Which presented a problem--one that he could not overcome: the songs, the material and the staging did not help him.

Now I want to complain again about the rat-packing in the cabaret. This kind of seating does not help the production. When you can't see, when everyone is sitting in your lap, when there is no place to put your coat or umbrella, when you cannot get out of your row because all the tables and chairs are blocking you, when four big guys with their bundles and their notebooks and their packages are at a small table that is hardly enough for one, do not expect a reviewer to look kindly at your production. Think about that for next time. O.K. All that would have mattered less if the production had been beautiful. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

| home | discounts | welcome | search |
| museums | NYTW mail | recordings | coupons | publications | classifie