Intellect vs. Emotion: John Doyle’s “Pacific Overtures”

The cast of Pacific Overtures at Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Works of art may be judged in the context of the times in which they are created, but works of art, indisputably, may also be judged in the context of the times in which they are encountered. That means the art at hand — a revival, with substantial cuts, of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman 1976 musical Pacific Overtures — brings unavoidable thoughts of Japan in the context of today’s ambivalent global alliances and, especially, the threat of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.

It’s not that these current considerations overwhelm our appreciation of director-designer John Doyle’s elegantly ritualistic treatment of the musical, but they regularly infuse, even enrich, the intellectual material, lending it added and unexpected relevance.

Yet “intellectual” (as opposed to “emotional”) is the operative word to sum up the contents — if a single word is needed — of a musical that reports in deliberate, staid terms how Japan, which kept its psychic and physical distance from other countries for more than 200 years, was forced to open its figuratively locked Shinto gates the middle of the 19th century.

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Although I recall much of the original production, I can’t entirely rely on my memory of it. Still, I can see that Doyle has taken liberties with his cast of 10 skilled actors, whom Ann Hould-Ward has dressed in modern street wear with white socks, and who move in a calculated tempo clearly meant to reflect Japanese behavior.

The story follows the Emperor, here called The Reciter (George Takei), as he learns that the Americans, under Commodore Matthew Perry, are on the point of entering the harbor. To discourage the four ships from arriving, young Kayama (Steven Eng) is tasked with leaving his wife, Tamate (Megan Masako Haley), and sailing out to waylay Perry.

Kayama is initially successful with the help of quick-thinking companion Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), but it isn’t long before the Americans, British, Dutch, French and the Russians all open trade with the Japanese, who soon begin to assimilate, adopting and adapting foreign fashions, mores and habits. Sondheim exquisitely captures this in Kayama’s song “A Bowler Hat”:

…I wind my pocket watch.
We serve white wine.
The house is far too small.
I killed a spider on the wall.
One of the servants thought it was a lucky sign.
I read Spinoza every day.
Where is my bowler hat?

Speaking of Japan’s short sociological transition, it might have taken longer in stage time had Doyle not made deep trims to the text. Now, the two-act Pacific Overtures runs 90 minutes, no intermission. Thus, the weakening of Japan’s resolve against allowing entry to foreigners feels faster than it should. (Is that what we might call “dramatic license“?)

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Sondheim, who famously doesn’t like to repeat himself (more about that farther down), wrote his melodies in quasi-Japanese style. The austere tunes (conducted by Greg Jarrett and orchestrated, as usual, by Jonathan Tunick with an ear for indigenous instrumental sounds) bear the weight of convincing authenticity, even they run the risk of blurring into one another after awhile.

Yet the lyrics are another thing completely. “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” his opening lyric, describes daily life with irresistible specificity; the aforementioned “A Bowler Hat” details through the personal acquisition of accessories how the outside world alters Japanese society; “Please Hello!” humorously jumps from indigenous melodic rhythms to those of the invading Western nations. Then there’s “Someone in a Tree,” one of the most astonishing lyrics ever put together by Sondheim’s puzzle-inclined brain. Attempting to chronicle a historic diplomatic gathering, three observers describe — only vaguely — what transpired before their very eyes. An astute comment on the difficulty of writing history comes across loud and clear as ever, with much of the lyric set on either five- or seven-note melodic lines, the number of syllables allotted to a 17-syllable haiku.

Although Sondheim has said that he dislikes venturing where he’s previously ventured, in fact he does repeat himself — a practice that with the best songwriters is known as style. So it is for “Pretty Lady,” for example, which predates “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd (currently on view at the Barrow Street Theatre) and in both cases is delivered by lip-smacking men.

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Performing with the somber affect and measured pace Doyle is after, the cast members are uniformly good and true. Along with Takei, Eng, Haley and Mendoza, they are Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Thom Sesma, Kevin Moon Loh, Karl Josef Ko and Mark Delacruz.

Doyle, who’s the Classic Stage Company artistic director, has made much of his reputation thoughtfully and passionately reviving Sondheim’s musicals. Now having done Pacific Overtures with such respect, what’s next — “Next” being the final song in Pacific Overtures. I could be wrong, but I’m betting on Merrily We Roll Along.