Review of the Sunday, March 26, 2023 matinee performance at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Starring Eymard Meneses Cabling, Andrew Cristi, Albert Hsueh, Jonny Lee Jr., Quynh-My Luu, Jason Ma, Daniel May, Christopher Mueller, Chani Wereley and Nicholas Yenson. Book by John Weidman. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Kabuki Consultant: Kirk Kanesaka. Fight Director: Yoshi Amao. Taiko Consultant: Mark H. Rooney. Scenic design by Chika Shimizu. Costume design & puppet by Helen Q. Hwang. Lighting design by Oliver Wason. Sound design by Eric Norris. Musical direction by Alexander Tom. Direction and musical staging by Ethan Heard. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission. NOTE: This production closes April 9, 2023.
Pacific Overtures is a stunning classic, rarely performed, and perhaps underappreciated. True, it isn't for the faint of heart, and you need to bring your "A" game to fully understand it as an audience member. But, when there's as glorious a production as Signature Theatre's current revival, it is most definitely worth the extra effort.
Here is a beautiful production (settings by Chika Shimizu, sound by Eric Morris), that sweeps over you even as you enter the space. Sounds of waves coming ashore fill the air, and the seating area is surrounded on all sides by calming white walls adorned with tranquil screens that evoke the sea and the air. The center of the space is filled with an enormous circular platform attached to a two-level, boxy platform, with gauzy curtains below, a taiko drum, and the branch of a tree, above. We are immediately transported, and the performance has not even begun.
The Reciter, here a modern day Japanese man (Jason Ma) enters, the lights dim, and we are transported with him to a time when Nippon was self-isolated, and ancient customs and traditions were followed to the letter. As the story unfolds, Oliver Wason's ambient lighting, and, at times, harsher lighting as the story dictates, conjures up a world at peace that is slowly morphing into one of chaotic change, and a devastating finale where East meets West - and all that that implies. Similarly, Helen Q. Hwang's masterful costume design pays tribute to the past culture and troubled, if modern, future. She makes the transitions between scenes and characters (each actor plays several roles) simpler by dressing each in nondescript base costumes, and adds a wide variety of robes, kimonos, wigs, and stylized Western wear, over top. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, under the baton of Alexander Tom, leading an ensemble of nine players, sound beautiful here. Special kudos to the percussionists and string musicians, who do stellar work. These elements, along with the versatile, "blank slate" of the scenery creates a feeling of epic, sweeping themes, all while remaining intimate - as if the entire thing is being presented for each of us alone. Visually and sonically, this may be one of the most fully integrated production I've seen at this venue.
Stephen Sondheim's score never disappoints - is there a weak song in it? And, with this production, each is highlighted with master strokes of inventive staging by Ethan Heard, who pulls out every stop to create distinct vignettes. Here, Eastern elements of taiko drumming, Kabuki and puppetry swirl together in an intoxicating, and often breathtaking manner. And the abrupt introduction of American vaudeville (and what may be best described as a minstrel show) signals a disquieting, threatening change of tone. It is jarring and disturbing in all the right ways. Heard's direction makes this challenging piece coherent and still thrilling from start to finish.
The full score and script are on display here - including the beloved and hilariously mischievous "Chrysanthemum Tea" - allowing audiences new to the piece to feel the full breadth of the work. Each song seems to function as a play within a play, offering context and commentary to John Weidman's almost poetic book. Heard and his company of actors have fully embraced this idea, and leaves me longing for just a staging of each number as a highlights revue of the evening.
What a company of actors! There is not a single cast member that is giving less than 100%, whether they are front and center or supporting a scene as an ensemble. When you witness a true company like this, you realize that though this is the way it is always supposed to work, it is actually more a rare occurrence. Led by Mr. Ma (a Broadway veteran that I can remember from his days in Shogun), each cast member is an expert storyteller, meeting the demands of whatever style the scene calls for.
The story of Kayama (Daniel May) and Manjiro (Jonny Lee Jr.), a lower-echelon authority and sentenced-to-die commoner who left Japan and returned illegally, respectively, is particularly exciting to watch, as each saves the other, and as they morph into completely different and opposing men. Their duet "Poems", is light and lovely, humorous and endearing in Act One. Their final moments, captured in the haunting second act song, "A Bowler Hat," is beautifully staged, as Kayama becomes more Western and Manjiro, unable to make peace with Western ways, prepares to fight like a Samurai. The revolving stage at this point adds to the visual evolution of the characters; its eventual stopping point makes the deadly result even more chilling.
Ma dons the garb of the Shogun, while Andrew Cristi's low-key take on the wicked Shogun's mother is both riotously funny and deliciously sinister in "Chrysanthemum Tea." And Chani Wereley is a delight as the Madam in "Welcome to Kanagawa." The staging of "Please Hello!" - when the Western powers insert themselves into Japanese society - takes me back to Cabaret's "Meeskite," where you laugh and laugh until you suddenly realize (too late) that what is happening isn't funny. Nicholas Yenson as Perry/American throughout is an amazing dancer who exudes sinister evil, and really embraces the demands of the style of his scenes.
All of that said, the numbers that end each act, were for me the most exciting of the performance. "Someone in a Tree" did not disappoint: Eymard Meneses Cabling (old man), Christopher Mueller (warrior) and the riveting Albert Hsueh (voice of boy), along with a wonderfully expressive puppet (boy) conspired to create one of the most memorable renditions of that song I've ever seen. Simply exceptional. And the full company shines together in the finale, "Next," a coda of sorts, as we see the end results of this Western invasion, through war (a startling few minutes on darkness after a flash of light, included), and the modern toll of Japan's historic rise in the global community and its effects of the planet. We are left with much to think about.
With just over a week of performances left at the time of this writing, I strongly encourage you to grab up any remaining tickets and get yourself to Arlington, Virginia. You will be glad you did.
📸: S. Finney, D. Rader