The enchanted woods of past and current Stephen Sondheim productions are full of Mama Roses and Georges and Sweeney Todds. Washington audiences have journeyed up the beanstalk with that giant killer Jack three times in nearly as many seasons.
So, Signature Theatre’s outstanding new production of the late Maestro’s more rarely produced Pacific Overtures (★★★★☆) sounds doubly refreshing to ears eager to venture somewhere less familiar in Sondheim-land.
The score, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, also simply sounds lovely filling the openness of director Ethan Heard’s in-the-round staging, grazing the graceful, watercolor-hued screens set designer Chika Shimizu has wrapped around the Max Theatre. Alexander Tom conducts a nine-piece orchestra — complete with a booming taiko war drum — that breathes vitality into those plunking, repeated quarter notes that so sing of Sondheim.
Heard’s talented cast sings with passion, too, caressing the stories inside the songs to find touching notes of humor, pathos, pride, and prejudice. The score (and book by John Weidman) limn the fact-based tale of the U.S. Navy’s unprompted arrival in the harbor of Uraga, Japan in 1853.
Bearing a letter of “diplomacy” from President Millard Fillmore, who was intent on opening trade with the isolated island nation, Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed steamships into the harbor with guns at the ready to forcibly enter, if not politely welcomed.
Sondheim and Weidman approach the brewing international contretemps from the Japanese point-of-view — specifically, that of the Reciter (Jason Ma), who sees and knows the whole story, and welcomes us to the island empire in opening number “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.”
Foreigners once were welcome in Japan, but that was 250 years before Perry arrived, the Reciter explains. Now, he narrates, samurai Kayama (Daniel May) is dispatched by the ruling Shogun Lord Abe (Eymard Meneses Cabling) as an envoy to send these unwelcome Americans on their way.
Kayama’s aided in his mission by Manjiro (Jonny Lee, Jr.), a formerly shipwrecked fisherman, who has recently returned to Japan after spending a decade in the States. Having violated Japanese law, first by leaving, then by returning to Japan, Manjiro initially is sentenced to death by the Shogun Council.
His service to Kayama’s mission earns him a chance at survival. His life-or-death predicament earns him the right to the cutting observation that, while his Japanese rulers regard the Americans as lowly dogs, he found life in the States to be more civilized than at home in Japan where lords dictate one’s fate.
Of course, the Americans — repped by two snippy Navy sailors, and Commodore Perry, styled as a semi-monstrous Uncle Sam — also regard the Japanese as a barbaric society, just begging to be dragged into the world of modern commerce.
The barbaric nature of capitalism notwithstanding, neither side is presented as completely right or wrong, although the show’s creators appear to pick a side with the hilarious second-act opener “Please Hello!” A parade of foreign nations, from the U.S. to Britain to Russia, all embodied by cartoonishly masked and costumed figures, try to plant their flag on Japanese soil.
Helen Q. Huang’s witty costumes marvelously complement potently pithy lyrics like, “Hello, I come with letters from Her Majesty Victoria/Who, learning how you’re trading now, sang ‘Hallelujah, Gloria!'”
The company manages several other comic highlights, namely Andrew Cristi’s flawlessly-timed turn as Shogun’s Mother singing “Chrysanthemum Tea,” with the matriarch growing increasingly impatient to hear how the ruler plans to deal with the invaders on their doorstep.
And, as a completely different sort of matriarch, Chani Wereley’s Madam scores leading her girls in the sweet but suggestive number “Welcome to Kanagawa.”
Sondheim and Weidman account for how the end to Japanese isolation impacts nearly every level of Japanese society, including samurai Kayama and his wife Tamate (Quynh-My Luu). Performing their duet “There Is No Other Way,” the couple’s love song — or goodbye song, as the case may be — May and Luu strike resonant chords of loyalty and loss.
And Luu, in particular, sings it so beautifully, you’ll wonder how “There Is No Other Way” hasn’t yet found its light in the canon of Sondheim standards. If only more people had seen a production of this show, like when Signature did it in 2005 — or, perhaps if more would see this production of the show, we can kick off that beloved standard campaign right here.
Pacific Overtures runs through April 9 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington, with a Pride Night performance on March 31. Tickets are $40 to $103. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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