Lost In Translation

Pacific Overtures: Sondheim and Weidman Muse on the Art of Turning Japanese

While writing Pacific Overtures, Stephen Sondheim has said that he and librettist John Weidman tried to take on the perspective of a Japanese playwright. Specifically, a Japanese playwright who had visited the U.S., seen some musical theater, and then returned home to write a Broadway-style show about the transformation of Japan following Commodore Matthew Perry's opening of Japanese-American trade relations through gunboat diplomacy. As with any version of the work, this area premiere (28 years after the Broadway debut) from Park Square and Theatre Mu comes with a concatenation of self/other dualities: American writers imagining and distorting how 19th-century Japanese viewed and distorted Americans, as realized by Asian-American actors performing to a mostly white audience.

Sondheim and Weidman's success in channeling a Japanese viewpoint is questionable. The show begins just before the 1853 arrival of Perry (whose steely determination also helped him win the heart of Monica on Friends) in a "serene and changeless" island empire. "Things are being done," sings the Reciter (Zachary Drake, whose performance combines mock pomposity with a chattiness that brought Joan Rivers to my sometimes-wandering mind.) "Somewhere out there, not here/Here we paint screens." True, when Perry and his four ships delivered a "pacific overture" from President Fillmore to the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had spent about 250 years in legally enforced isolation (though limited trade with China and the Netherlands continued). But by the mid-19th century, production was expanding and domestic trade had developed into a blend of capitalism and feudalism. As is common with the use of money and the unequal distribution of wealth and power, there was (notify Marx immediately) class conflict, as demonstrated by peasant revolts, unrest among the samurai, and other un-serene stuff. Of course historical drama--being fiction and not history--need not be principally concerned with historicity, but the play's presentation of a strictly static, bucolic land jolted into the march of progress misleadingly contextualizes Perry's watershed mission at the expense of the entire show.

Which might be overlooked if this production weren't such a snooze. If historical drama needn't be accurate, it should at least be dramatic. Weidman's urbane but shallow book is a skein of tangents and reiterations. It attempts to center on a conflict between two former friends: the Ameriphile-turned-nationalistic-samurai Manjiro (Sherwin F. Resurreccion) and the humble samurai-turned-"Western dog" Kayama (Arnold R. Felizardo). But there's no sense of betrayal or passion in this rivalry. By the time the men face off in a Kabuki-influenced sword fight, the battle--despite being gracefully choreographed--has all the tension of a pickup tetherball game.

Sticking it to the man: Arnold R. Felizardo and Sherwin F. Resurreccion in 'Pacific Overtures'
Courtesy of Park Square Theatre
Sticking it to the man: Arnold R. Felizardo and Sherwin F. Resurreccion in 'Pacific Overtures'

Sondheim, thankfully, is a brilliant songwriter, and even his roughest efforts contain diamonds. Pacific's brightest--"There Is No Other Way," "Someone in a Tree"--are lovingly treated here. The former is a lambent ballad that Joseph Carl and Sara Ochs delicately handle as if juggling Fabergé eggs. But much of the show--how can I put this?--is just no good. Things conclude on a robustly square note in which Japanese Westernization is outlined with sound bites (each answered by the cheery chorus, singing "Next!") until a young, dungaree- and miniskirt-clad couple emerges triumphantly to shake tail feathers to club music. Was the mere fact of Japanese Westernization an interesting observation in 1976? And today? Perhaps there is life in this material that I'm missing, a depth that eluded me, humor that escaped me. I tried. Next!

 
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