Theatre Review: Pacific Overtures, Classic Stage Company, NYC

I was very happy to score a cheap ticket ($40) to this show through the app TodayTix. My brother saw it recently and enjoyed it. I was curious. I was introduced to Sondheim many years ago when I lived in London. I’d heard this was one of his strangest and least produced. The first production apparently was Kabuki style…

And it is strange. A tale about Japanese isolationism in the 1800’s? While occasionally you could feel an analogy with the Orange Monster’s Plan for a Wall, the play doesn’t really try to be particularly political. It’s mostly farce, and the tale unfolds with some heartbreak, some loss, diplomatic meetings and quite odd group numbers, which is not unusual for Sondheim.

What struck me was hearing his familiar melodies and orchestrations applied to a different setting… though not one, but two songs were about a relationship between women and observers or consumers, a romanticization of sex work in one piece, where the madame in charge of geisha girls sees a new market opportunity and another with British sailors ogling a local girl, which seemed much another version of ‘Pretty Women’ from Sweeney Todd.

Another song, about a boy in a tree, observing the diplomatic meeting, was classic Sondheim, some sort of commonplace analogy and a way of speaking about something else. Not finishing the hat in this case, but being in a tree, and what does he see and from whose perspective do we ever know the truth? If I’m feeling charitable (and the music was gorgeous), I think this is interesting; though if I was grumpy I might have rolled my eyes. Unless you’re swept away by the larger story, it doesn’t come across as deep and complex as it might.

It was really exciting to hear Ann Harada up close, with wonderful comic timing; to hear and see George Takei, basically playing George Takei, that unmistakeable voice seems always with the same cadences to me, and so wonderful: a full cast of talented Asian-American actors.

Apparently, the original show is much longer, and this has been edited and shaped down, with songs cut, and especially transferring the whole shebang to a sparse stage with modern dress. Still, I wouldn’t have been really up for an Asian costume party. Some white guys, even Sondheim, writing about Asian history puts me in a questioning frame of mind. It’s wonderful to see an all-Asian cast. But the songs seem a bit of silly stereotyping: one with characters trading Haiku poems; another about… oh, bowing, tea, kimonos, Asian sort of stuff, I gathered… But I was very glad to see this piece of Sondheim history, which I can’t imagine I’ll have the change to experience again…

This entry was posted in Review, Theatre/Concert Review, Theatre/Show, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *