The new off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s intricate and unusual 1976 musical “Pacific Overtures” is like a bonsai tree that has been pruned with hedge clippers instead of scissors, or a barber shop customer who got too close a shave from Sweeney Todd.
“Pacific Overtures” is one of the most intelligent musicals ever devised. Told from the point of view of the Japanese, it depicts how Western nations forced their way into mid-19th century Japan, opened it up to global trade and permanently altered its culture. The cast is made up entirely of Asian actors.
At its core, it is a critical-minded examination of history and international relations, which makes it especially timely given the current debates over isolationism and globalism. To reflect traditional Japanese culture, it incorporates elements of stylized Kabuki drama and the foreign-sounding pentatonic scale.
Director John Doyle has made a career out of downsizing well-known musicals, from his controversial revivals of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” (where the cast doubled as the orchestra) to his extraordinary remounting of “The Color Purple” (one of the rare occasions where a revival outshines the original production).
Doyle has cut down “Pacific Overtures” from 2½ hours over two acts to 90 minutes in a single act, omitting much of the original script, including dialogue and musical sequences.
The size of the cast has been cut in half, and so has the theater, with audience members sitting on opposite sides of a long narrow runway. Whereas the original Broadway production was a wondrous pageant, the scenic and costume design here is minimal.
Thankfully, the cast is not forced to play instruments. In fact, the nine-piece orchestra is the best thing about the production, providing a full and sensitive handling of Sondheim’s one-of-a-kind score.
George Takei, who appeared on Broadway recently in the short-lived musical “Allegiance,” provides a gentle and dignified presence as the Reciter, a narrator who also takes on some small roles.
This revival ought to be just as divisive as Doyle’s other stabs at Sondheim. Some will find that Doyle brings clarity and intimacy to a challenging work, and others will be angry over the textual omissions or the lack of visuals. Personally, I found the production to be a plain and unexciting affair that, for the most part, drained away rather than enhanced the musical’s impact.