Stephen Sondheim as soon as wrote a music titled “I By no means Do Something Twice.” It wasn’t about his profession, nevertheless it might need been. The subject material of every of his reveals is distinct and singular, and the occasionally mounted Pacific Overtures, now introduced in a sophisticated and progressive manufacturing by Signature Theatre, stands out as the most strikingly distinctive of all of them.
Set in mid-Nineteenth-century Japan, Pacific Overtures depicts, from the perspective of the Japanese, the speedy social and political change following an expedition by a U.S. naval squadron that demanded, at cannon level, business and diplomatic relations between Japan and the West.
The primary act focuses on the gunboat diplomacy itself. Jason Ma, because the “Reciter,” describes isolationist Japan, which, beneath the Tokugawa Shogunate, maintained home tranquility for 250 years as an island floating in the midst of the ocean, untouched by “issues … being carried out someplace on the market.” In Chika Simizu’s elegantly easy scenic design, the white turntable-centered set turns into that island, whereas blue panels suggesting the ocean encompass all the theater house.
Not like his counterpart within the unique 1976 manufacturing, which I had the privilege of seeing throughout its run in Washington, Ma’s Reciter is just not a extremely formal determine, typically anchored to his seat, talking in a stylized manner derived from kabuki observe. He’s comparatively conversational in tone, transferring in regards to the stage. Director Ethan Heard’s method to the manufacturing generally appeared to purpose for accessibility, in a present whose unique kabuki-based idea, together with its proscenium construction, stored audiences at a larger emotional distance.
On the method of the American ships, the Reciter and townspeople liken them to “4 Black Dragons.” Right here, a number of actors within the versatile 10-member forged signify the collective emotional influence of an occasion that amazes a whole folks. The influence is felt significantly within the lives of two males: Manjiro (Jonny Lee Jr.), a fisherman who had spent years within the U.S. after being rescued at sea, and Kayama (Daniel Could), a minor samurai who’s assigned to fulfill the People, since higher-level officers disdain the duty.
They start as allies, buying and selling transient poems (a stunning instance of Sondheim’s maxim “much less is extra”) and tossing an orange between them, typically strolling counter to the route of the turntable’s rotation, successfully conveying the sense of their lengthy journey. They contrive a refined plan to allow the American and Japanese officers to fulfill in a brief “treaty home” with out the previous actually setting foot on Japanese soil.
In the meantime, some fissures seem within the seemingly clean floor of Shogunate politics. The loyalty of the “lords of the South” (i.e., the Satsuma and Choshu domains in southwestern Japan) is in query. The feckless Shogun (additionally performed by Ma) dithers within the face of the American flotilla. In “Chrysanthemum Tea,” a delightfully plotted little four-act puzzle play, his formidable mom (Andrew Cristi) takes decisive motion, concurrently humorous and insidiously chilling.
In “Welcome to Kanagawa,” politics and diplomacy take a short timeout whereas a neighborhood madam (Chani Wereley) instructs her fees within the methods to make use of with visiting American sailors. In his e-book Ending the Hat, Sondheim calls this quantity “essentially the most annoyingly problematic music I’ve ever written.” Whereas it supplies a second of sunshine leisure, it fails — by means of no fault of the performers — so as to add a lot to the present.
On the heart of Pacific Overtures is “Somebody in a Tree,” certainly one of Sondheim’s favourite lyrics, as this system factors out. Lengthy after the occasion, an outdated man (Eymard Meneses Cabling) recollects himself, as a boy, climbing a tree above the treaty home and seeing, however not listening to, the comings and goings of the contributors. In the meantime, a warrior (Christopher Mueller), secreted beneath the floorboards, hears sounds however can see nothing. It’s an ingenious manner of addressing an occasion of which there aren’t any detailed historic data.
The tree and the boy (Albert Hsueh) are stationed on a platform effectively above the stage, whereas the outdated man stays on the principle enjoying floor. The bodily distance between the outdated man and the boy loses among the unique manufacturing’s intimacy between his youthful and older selves, and consequently among the quantity’s poignance.
When the People (and later, Europeans) seem, they’re portrayed as caricatures, with garish uniforms and large-nosed masks. Within the unique model of the present, the American chief, Commodore Perry, concludes the primary act with a spectacular kabuki lion dance. On this manufacturing, Perry (Nicholas Yenson) solely stomps briefly across the stage, in my opinion a missed alternative.
The second act begins with extra satire of Western pretension, as American, British, French, Russian, and Dutch admirals current their calls for to the Japanese. Every is given a stereotypical musical fashion (e.g., Gilbert and Sullivan–fashion patter for the British official — the occasions of the play happen earlier than Gilbert and Sullivan wrote any operettas, however Sondheim, by no means a G&S fan, will be forgiven for a small anachronism).
Heard’s staging of “A Bowler Hat” is a spotlight of the manufacturing. Kayama and Manjiro — the previous changing into progressively extra westernized, the latter changing into ever extra deeply invested in samurai custom — sit reverse one another, whereas the turntable spins slowly as years go and associates turn into enemies. Subsequently, the lords of the South make a presentation to the boy emperor (represented by a puppet), instructed as a fable a few brave king and a tiger. The story is visualized in a motion piece, brilliantly executed by Yenson.
One of many essential options of the set is an oblong space set aside by a diaphanous blue curtain. It’s used successfully all through, one instance being slow-motion sword observe between two samurai, who spring into motion when three British sailors threaten a Japanese lady (a well-manipulated puppet) in “Fairly Girl.”
Revolution is afoot, and in a riveting sword fight sequence (Yoshi Amao is the battle director), the outdated order is overthrown and the Emperor (now portrayed by Ma in a Western-style uniform) emerges as the middle of energy, decreeing that Japan will tackle the West on Japan’s personal phrases, in what has come to be referred to as the “Meiji Restoration.”
The primary a part of the ultimate quantity, “Subsequent” focuses on Japan’s speedy militarization, resulting in the catastrophe of World Struggle II (in historic equity, financial, industrial, authorized, and academic modernization had been a part of the bundle as effectively). In 1976, when Japan was thought within the U.S. to be a threatening financial juggernaut, the rest of the quantity highlighted the success of Japan’s auto and know-how industries. In Signature’s up to date model, a darker image — an growing older inhabitants, local weather change — receives the eye.
As one expects from Signature, all of the technical points of the present — lighting (Oliver Wason), sound (Eric Norris), the numerous and colourful costumes (Helen Q. Huang, additionally answerable for the puppets) — are top-notch. Deserving particular recognition is Mark H. Rooney, whose enormous booming drum, set on the platform above the stage, is usually a dominating presence setting the tone for scenes.
Pacific Overtures could also be a present that’s simpler to admire than love. However on this gorgeously detailed manufacturing, the admiration is well-earned, and every second justifies the viewers’s curiosity and engagement.
Operating Time: Roughly two hours and 20 minutes, together with one intermission.
Pacific Overtures performs by means of April 9, 2023, within the MAX Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($56–$103), name (703) 820-9771 or buy on-line. Details about ticket reductions is out there right here.
This system for Pacific Overtures is on-line right here.
Closed captions can be found through the GalaPro app.
COVID Security: Masks are at all times elective however strongly inspired within the foyer and different public areas of the constructing. Face masks are required contained in the efficiency areas on Thursdays and Sundays. Face masks are elective however strongly inspired contained in the efficiency areas on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Signature’s COVID Security Measures will be discovered right here.