The barbarians have arrived, and this time they come in the form of gigantic, wild haired Americans, set out to westernize the eastern world. My on-going quest to see anything and everything composed by Stephen Sondheim has landed me once again at Studio 54. Last time it was hell bent would be assassins, this time Japanese officials hell bent on preventing any westerner from setting foot on their land.
Pacific Overtures is the euphemism used by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 when Japan was persuaded to open up trade relations with the United States. For 250 years, Japan had a policy of total isolation, they were the “floating kingdom,” one never to be set foot upon by any westerner, and it is the country’s either unwillingness or inability to prevent this invasion is the basis for Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical. The 120 year change from total isolation to world power, including Hiroshima, American technology, and the war in Iraq is told from the perspective of the Japanese.
Weidman’s book concerns the journeys taken by two Japanese men as they see their country transform. Manjiro is a Japanese sailor who was rescued by an American boat, who returns to his native country totally under the influence of western culture. Kayama is a samurai who rises through the ranks and believes in Japanese isolationism. Once the westerners arrive, Kayama is given the task of making the ships go away, since Japanese law forbids any foreigner from setting foot on their land. In order to help each other the two join forces, but of course they are unsuccessful in convincing Perry and the Americans to leave. The Japanese are tricked, Admiral Perry sets foot on the land, does a traditional Japanese lion dance complete with an American cakewalk, and Japan is opened to the west. This change is symbolized by the change in the two men over their lifetimes.
In telling this story from the Japanese perspective several aspects of Kabuki, traditional Japanese theater, are used.
B.D Wong as Reciter
There is usually one character who serves as the narrator and introduces characters, interrupts with explanations and wisdom, and steps into punctuate exclamation, doubt, and grief. This character in Pacific Overtures is the cleverly named, Reciter, B.D Wong’s character. The characters are emotionally restrained, so Reciter steps in to exclaim their emotions. This is done beautifully when Kayama’s wife commits suicide, Reciter, cries out his grief. Kabuki players were principally women, but when many of them began to attract unwanted attention from male admirers, they were officially banned from performing in the theater because authorities felt it would lead to their demoralization. It was then men began playing women roles, a tradition that stands today. Several female characters in Pacific Overtures are played by men, including a very lovely geisha girl. In traditional Kabuki, assistants, kurogo, are always on hand to remove props, and add makeup when necessary. The wear black, and are considered invisible though they are in full view of the audience. In Pacific Overtures, aging makeup is added to Kayama and Manjiro to show their advancing age and gray hair. Puppets are a very important aspect of Kabuki. The emperor in the musical is represented as a ever growing puppet as he ages, finally stepping in at the end as a full grown human. These aspects of Japanese theater are never copied or imitated, but just the spirit of them are used.
Sondheim’s score is sophisticated and hypnotic. It begins with traditional Japanese music and progresses to a more Americanized and Broadway sound, especially in the finale “Next,” complete with flashy Broadway choreography. Sondheim is not up to his usual standard of intricate lyrics. I had the feeling I wasn’t missing much by not being able to hear every word, but Sondheim wouldn’t leave us high and dry. “Chrysanthemum Tea” and “Please Hello” are very tricky. In “Chrysanthemum Tea” the Shogun’s mother is trying to poison her son. The Americans have asked to greet a high ranking official before they leave, so she feels if there is no high ranking official to greet them, they will leave. In “Please Hello,” the newly appointed Shogun, is inundated by American, British, Dutch, Russian, and French ambassadors who wish to have relations with the country. The shogun is left a befuddled mess not knowing what to do. The best songs of the piece are the lovely “Bowler Hat,” which describes the change in the two men over the years, and “Four Black Dragons,” which depicts the Japanese reaction to the four American ships docked on the shores of their land.
Michael K. Lee and Paolo Montalban
The entire cast is strong. There are equally adept at playing geishas, sailors, priests, and lords. B.D Wong is a very gentle Reciter as compared to other portrayals, and his part as the Shogun is very funny, but this show truly belongs to the two young men playing Kayama and Manjiro. Michael K. Lee and Paolo Montalban are the heart of the show. They are touching and hilarious. Michael K. Lee as Kayama particularly shines above the rest.
The biggest impact of Pacific Overtures, as is with most Sondheim musical, is in its meaning. The original Broadway production opened in 1976. That was quite a bold time to open a show that criticizes a country that is celebrating its 200th birthday the very same year. Opening now on Broadway is a bold time too. In a time of war, it is not a popular stance to take, but we take pride in a country that allows the rights of opinion and the right to criticize, so we think. We don’t like to think about our shortcomings. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot, that our beliefs and ways of life were considered wrong or barbaric, would you react the same way as the Japanese?
Pacific Overtures looks through the eyes of the Japanese, but it is really about America too. Maybe now is the time, and perhaps the most important time, we need to see the way we are viewed in the world, or come to understand that our “views” are not the only “views.” The idea that we are seen as “four black dragons spitting fire,” or the opinion that the American flag is a tool of suffocation are very powerful, eye opening, and frightening all at the same time. Maybe we should think about that and learn a lesson from it.
The characters in the floating kingdom
Pacific Overtures is showing now at Studio 54, for more information and tickets visit our database here.Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.