John Doyle’s condensed, ninety-minute Pacific Overtures is but the latest instance of bonsai Sondheim: cultivating miniatures of Saint Steve’s masterworks in small pots through careful pruning and clamping. More than a decade ago, the director pointed the way with Broadway remounts of Sweeney Todd and Company in which actors doubled as instrumentalists on spare unit sets. In 2015, Fiasco Theater brought its scrappy, collegiate Into the Woods to the Roundabout. And now at Barrow Street Theatre, 130 spectators squeeze into a pop-up pie shop for a site-specific, in-your-lap Sweeney. In each case, there’s been a gain of emotional intensity along with loss of narrative clarity; this ascetic, muted Pacific follows suit.
First to go is Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s canny staging concept for the 1976 Hal Prince–directed Broadway premiere: A Japanese kabuki troupe tells the story of the 1853 “opening” of Japan by American naval forces led by Commodore Matthew Perry. Such an approach slyly flipped the inherently orientalist project of white artists writing about the East, while also exploiting a musical tradition that embraces The Mikado, Madame Butterfly, and The King and I. The ritualized frame invites ironic slippage regarding concepts of cultural appropriation and assimilation. You know: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
In place of Boris Aronson’s legendary painted screens, or Amon Miyamoto’s severe but effective Noh theater tableaux (for the 2004 Broadway revival), Doyle presents a curved, white platform. The all-Asian cast promenades on this runway in modern dress, often speaking and singing to an attentive young woman (Megan Masako Haley) like cheerful tutors of her nation’s history. Narrated by a Reciter (grandfatherly George Takei), the musical unfolds as a fable illustrated by one of Sondheim’s most complex and varied scores: a blend of pentatonic sparseness (woodblock and flutes) with lusher Broadway ballads or flamboyant pastiche such as “Please Hello,” which mashes up Sousa, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the can-can for an imperialist sonic land rush. (What didn’t make Doyle’s cut: the tongue-twisting mother-poisons-Shogun ditty, “Chrysanthemum Tea.”)
As a human focus for the geopolitical drama of Japans forced globalization, Weidman invents the low-ranking samurai Kayama (Steven Eng) and the Westernized fisherman Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), whose respective attitudes toward the barbarian invaders (fearful and awestruck) reverse over time. The systematic infestation of folkways by a foreign culture is poignantly evoked in Kayama’s moody ode, “A Bowler Hat.”
With its reduced orchestra, modest singing style, and low-key spectacle, Doyle’s approach has its strengths. We really hear those dense lyrics; we lean in to appreciate the subtleties of the caste system. But this production, while scrupulously acted, seems to be having a conversation with itself, not the audience. There’s anger and irony in the material (which was unveiled during our bicentennial year) that dissipates in Doyle’s hermetic coolness.
Lovers of this difficult but forward-thinking musical will wonder: Where can it go from here? A J-punk Pacific? An intricately designed Bunraku Pacific? Should we simply abandon it to the concert hall? Andrew Lloyd Webber or the creators of Miss Saigon can muster bloated orchestras and million-dollar stage machinery for their Broadway reissues, while Sondheim acolytes patiently snip and bind the branches downtown. Mixed though the results may be, this earnest experiment proves the piece infinitely adaptable. Like Japan after 1853, that’s both its glory and its tragedy.
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 18