The Singing Samurai

From left: B.D. Wong, Michael K. Lee, and Paolo Montalban.Photo: Amy Arbus

Every New York production of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures has its own strong idiosyncrasies. In the 1976 premiere, director Harold Prince treated it as an all-male Kabuki-cum-Bunraku offering, with masklike makeup and the all-Asian-American cast speaking in a quasi-Japanese singsong. Fran Soeder’s 1984 Off Broadway revival featured some cutting. Amon Miyamoto’s 2000 Japanese-language production opted for a more intimate Noh style, but was seen here with the distancing effect of a concert hall and surtitles.

Miyamoto’s current production for the Roundabout Theatre falls somewhere between Prince’s lavishness and the Tokyo production’s spareness. Rumi Matsui’s masks and set are understated but highly suggestive, though the final effect, whether out of Götterdämmerung or Democracy, is debatable. Junko Koshino’s costumes are neither too grand nor too modest; the lighting, by Brian MacDevitt, is as eloquent as his always is. The closing number, “Next,” in which Japan’s ultimate Westernization and Asian hegemony are brought out at cartoon speed, properly encompasses Iraq, and makes nonverbal references to the atom bomb.

Miyamoto briefly introduces a male lover for the Shogun, and again has an orchestra of 7 replacing the original 24, allowing the canny Sondheim lyrics to come across all the better. What is lost, though, from the ’76 premiere is Boris Aronson’s magnificent visualization of Commodore Perry’s fleet, which the stunned Japanese of 1853 called dragon boats and I consider a key ingredient. However ingenious, lighting alone cannot conjure them up. Also missing is Patricia Birch’s gripping lion dance for Perry; now that he is represented as an electric-eyed nondancing colossus, only the music remains.

What is good about the production, also passably choreographed by the director, is that the speech sounds more accessibly Occidental, and that the female parts are played by women; in short, that while retaining the Japanese trappings, it remains a Broadway musical, a genre on which young Miyamoto, growing up (as the Times put it in a recent profile) a show queen, cut his theatrical teeth. This is most clearly felt in the narrating Reciter, played by B. D. Wong with an offhandedly cynical, modern-day savvy that playfully bridges miles and centuries. When Wong becomes the Shogun, he is less effective.

Sondheim’s music and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are convincingly Japanese-sounding, even if somewhat at the expense of Broadway tunefulness. Almost all of the Act One numbers fall a trifle austerely—not to say aridly—on American ears, owing in part to the employment of Japanese instruments, melodies, and harmonies. But in the broadly satirical “Welcome to Kanagawa” for a transvestite madam and her four girls, and in “Please Hello!,” in which five foreign admirals gambol in pastiche Western numbers (Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Tchaikovsky, and Dutch clog-dance music), we are closer to home. So too in “A Bowler Hat,” where the two main characters diverge, one becoming aggressively Westernized and one—if only in nonsinging action—militantly Eastern.

In the last analysis, the show has two basic problems: The opening up of Japan is not a topic that elicits potent echoes in our psyche, and an accelerated historical panorama militates against allowing individual characters sufficient development to engage us emotionally. Even so, there are noteworthy performances, foremost by Sab Shimono’s riven Lord Abe, followed closely by Michael K. Lee’s upward-mobile Kayama, and Paolo Montalban’s first pro- then anti-modern Manjiro. Especially winning bits are contributed by Yoko Fumoto’s devoted wife, Francis Jue’s sardonic madam, and Alvin Y. F. Ing’s reminiscing old man. But no one, even the four- or five-role multitaskers, fails to register.

In a new book, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, Mark N. Grant observes that since Pacific Overtures, “Sondheim, a good tune writer, has increasingly created his scores as recitatives built on rifflike repetition of vamps,” a device that has been defined as “a simple introductory or accompanimental phrase … that can be repeated indefinitely.” This may be so, but bear in mind that modern opera has moved in the same direction, and that, in the adroit hands of a Sondheim, the vamp becomes as enticing as the blonde seductresses of old-style Hollywood movies.

  B. D. Wong’s career-launching moment—his 1988 starring role in M. Butterfly as an ambiguously sexed Chinese-opera singer—turns out to have been a prelude. “It’s a singing actor’s dream to be in a Sondheim musical,” says Wong, noting the original Pacific Overtures inspired him to pursue acting. Wong, a Chinese-American, has been hankering for the play ever since, and in director Miyamoto’s earlier production, he saw his ideal. “Hal Prince brilliantly staged the play those years ago,” he says, “but this production has Japanese blood in its veins.” 

Pacific Overtures
Directed by Amon Miyamoto
Roundabout Theatre Company. At Studio 54.

The Singing Samurai