- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

“Pacific Overtures,” with its fusion of Eastern-inflected music and lyrics and Broadway musical conventions from the West, is regarded as one of Stephen Sondheim’s more experimental works.

Signature Theatre’s hectic staging, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, does little to make this 1976 musical about America’s encroachment into Japan in 1853 more accessible or enjoyable.

Mr. Schaeffer conceived “Pacific Overtures” as a chamber piece, cutting the cast down from 39 to 10 and the 22-piece orchestra to a lean seven musicians, many of whom play traditional Japanese instruments.

Jonathan Tunick has come up with new orchestrations for the work, which also features an updated book by John Weidman with topical references to Sony, Honda, and New York Yankee Hideki Matsui in the show’s ghastly closing number, “Next.” The de-emphasis on pageantry extends to the set, an expanse of untreated plywood that looks fresh from Home Depot and wooden poles representing bamboo trees.

The 10 actors wear black pajamas and wigs, in addition to the bold whiteface makeup that suggests Kabuki.

With the exception of Will Gartshore, who plays Kayama, the police prefect who embraces westernization at the cost of his soul, the actors play multiple roles — both male and female. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the characters, who hurry on- and offstage before you scarcely get a chance to know them.

A frenetic pace keeps the energy high but the comprehension low in this story of violent culture clash and a crumbling friendship between two men caught between tradition and modernization. Kayama and Manjiro (Daniel Felton) bond over their duty to keep Japan’s sacred edict that no foreigners set foot on their land. However, led by a bulldozing Commodore Matthew Perry (Matt Conner) and his warships (called “four black dragons” by the natives), Japan’s ports are reluctantly opened up to foreign trade. Kayama is made governor and is slowly seduced by Western influences, transforming from a barefoot fisherman to a monocle-wearing, wine-drinking English gentleman in a cutaway suit, as seen in the rueful ballad “A Bowler Hat,” and sung with commanding ease by Mr. Gartshore.

Manjiro, on the other hand, becomes a samurai, determined to keep his country as Japanese as possible, even if it means murdering anyone who does not believe in isolationism.

“Pacific Overtures” juggles political, economic, social, and ethnic themes, which requires a slew of exposition. The musical sacrifices song for reams of dialogue and leaden aphoristic tales, delivered mostly by the Reciter (an oddly flat Donna Migliaccio), the narrator who also jumps in the action from time to time to play the Shogun and the Emperor.

Some of this exposition is such heavy going that you are absurdly relieved when a song comes along, especially such tunes as “Pretty Lady,” which features the delicate ironies for which Mr. Sondheim is known. The song depicts three sailors performing sublime three-part harmonies in an effort to solicit sex from a passing maiden (Mr. Conner).

Other highlights include the invigorating cheek of “Welcome to Kanagawa,” where the world’s oldest profession is practiced in centuries-old Japanese style, and the sly wit of “Chrysanthemum Tea,” in which the Shogun’s mother (Michael Bunce) takes matters into her own hands — or teacups, as it were — when her son decides to ignore the Americans waiting in the harbor outside his palace.

Yet a smattering of solid production numbers isn’t enough to save “Pacific Overtures” from sinking into a torpor of overthinking, overacting, and a general lack of lightness. It has plenty of bustle, but no hustle.

**

WHAT: “Pacific Overtures,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 3.

TICKETS: $30 to $49

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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