14 December 2013 | fshepinc
Underperformed Sondheim Masterpiece
As with nearly all Sondheim shows, the critics were divided when Pacific Overtures bowed on Broadway. It also had the great misfortune to open the same season as A Chorus Line, which became one of the longest-running musicals of all time. But time and subsequent productions have shown that there is much more here than some of those reviewers realized.
The story of Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 journey to "open" Japan to foreign trade sounds an unlikely premise for a musical. But playwright John Weidman and composer Stephen Sondheim tell the story from the Japanese point of view, using the experiences of two men, a samurai and a fisherman, to chart the cultural impact of gunboat diplomacy on Japanese society. Director Hal Prince (Evita, Phantom of the Opera) borrowed elements of traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre, including the use of an all-Asian, (nearly) all- male cast. Combined with brilliant designs and costumes, Pacific Overtures is a feast for the eyes as well as the heart and mind.
The original Broadway production was filmed on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York for airing on Japanese television. Sadly, that recording has never been (legally) commercially available in the US, though gray-market copies of varying quality do circulate. The brilliant, Tony-nominated performance of Mako as the Reciter (narrator) is preserved along with outstanding work by Sab Shimono, Soon-Teck Oh, Isao Sato, Alvin Ing, Yuki Shimoda, and the rest of the cast. That these wonderfully talented performers are not more of a household name is really a crime.
Finally, a musical can only be as good as its score, and Pacific Overtures has one of the finest ever written. Aided by Jonathan Tunick's brilliant and powerful orchestrations, songs such as "Poems", "Someone In A Tree", "There Is No Other Way", "Please Hello", "Pretty Lady", and "A Bowler Hat" are as beautiful as anything Sondheim has ever written. It is no small coincidence that several selections from the score have been turned into an orchestral suite of dances that have been performed and recorded by symphonic orchestras.
Pacific Overtures is engaging, moving, thought-provoking, and often quite funny as well. Don't miss any opportunity that comes your way to see it.