Is Worthy Of A Shogun
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Lyric Stage, Boston
Through June 16
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Pacific Overtures deals with the opening of Japan to the West and Commodore Perry’s excursion there in 1853. The Japanese had isolated themselves from the rest of the world many years earlier. They had decreed that no foreigners would ever again be allowed to step on their soil. They saw outsiders as barbarians and savages, as people who would destroy their culture and exploit their products. It has a familiar ring to it: Gunboat Diplomacy, isolationism, xenophobia, expansionism, and a fear of change are subjects touched upon.
It was first produced in 1976 at a time when the Vietnam War was very fresh in people’s memories, so it would have been natural for people to have focused on American forays into other nations at that time. Given the state of the nation today, where trade wars and isolationism are popular, and a fear of those who are different is in ascendence on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum, it is very possible audiences will see another message in this very fine work.
I last saw Pacific Overtures in 2003 in a lavish production that was incredible. From my count, the original consisted of a cast of 36. The Lyric is working with just 11, with actors taking on multiple roles. Of course, the theatre in Copley Square is also quite small, and the orchestra is much reduced. So how does taking such a huge production and reducing it in size work out? In a word, magnificently.
Director Spiro Veloudos, working with Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg and four additional orchestra members take Sondheim’s score and work wonders with it. The music which plays off many Japanese styles includes Haiku, as well as nods to Gilbert and Sullivan, and a multinational flavor that, while showing how different nations can be, also captures the fact that all countries benefit when they cooperate with one another. Unfortunately, historically this cooperation has not always gone smoothly, and that is also brought out clearly here.
The set is simple yet gorgeous. Designed by Janie E. Howland, it has a backdrop made up of four Japanese screen panels with Hiroshige style illustrations on them. They are rotated very subtly during the play depicting different scenes as the story moves along . The floor gives the appearance of tatami mats, an item that will serve an important purpose in the negotiations between the Americans and the Japanese. Branches from a cherry blossom tree hang from above. I have read that Someone In A Tree is Stephen Sondheim’s favorite song from his own work, and seeing it performed by Brandon Milardo and Karina Wen under the branches is just lovely.
The cast is led by Lisa Yuen as the Reciter and Shogun. From the opening number The Adventures of Floating in the Middle of the Sea, Ms Yuen keeps the narrative flowing without forcing it. Her voice is clear and warm.
Carl Hsu and Sam Hamashima play Kayama and Manjiro. Kayama is a low ranking Samurai who ends up as the leading negotiator with the Americans, a job he was not exactly thrilled to be appointed to. Manjiro is a fisherman who had lived in the United States after being rescued by American sailors. He has returned to Japan to warn his leaders of the approaching Americans. He is not received well. Kayama and Manjiro form a bond when they find they can help each other through their problems.
In Poems the two exchange multiple haiku. It is fast paced and through it we see their friendship grow. I loved how Hsu and Hamashima moved about the stage while performing this number. Choreographer Micheline Wu deserves much credit for the fine work she has done.
The entire cast, playing multiple roles, did not disappoint. Gary Thomas Ng plays the Madam leading her Geisha Girls in Welcome to Kanagawa. With twirling umbrellas and flirtatious glances the number was fun and beautiful.
In Please Hello, representatives from the United States, France, Holland, Great Britain, and Russia all besiege Lord Abe (Jeff Song) with trade agreements. The play on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General is delightful along with some French Can-Can, Dutch clog shoe dancing, and the frequent admonition from the Russian representative to “Don’t touch the coat!)
Spiro Veloudos has chosen to have the actors wear masks when playing non Japanese parts. The masks are somewhat grotesque and reminiscent of the caricatures of foreigners that have been used over the years in many countries. These caricaturization represent how the Japanese saw outsiders. It is also interesting that many of the American parts were spoken with Southern accents. It is funny, but I notice that many directors in this area do that when trying to show Americans in a negative light. I wonder if directors in the South have their actors use Boston accents to get the same effect..
Pacific Overtures may very well have Sondheim’s best score. It is certainly the one that will continue playing in your head when you leave the theater. I loved every song and will be listening to the sound track often.
One of the beautiful things about theater is it can be fun at the same time it is dealing with serious and difficult subjects. We live in very polarizing times and have for many years. Too often when trying to make a point, a playwright can leave the audience feeling further divided. I found much in Pacific Overtures to give us reason to strive to understand each other and find ways to exchange the best we all have to offer. Tearing down walls and barriers to the free exchange of ideas and goods is a positive thing, though it is difficult to accomplish. I think of the words of Frederic Bastiat “If goods aren’t allowed to cross borders, armies will.”
This is the final production of the Lyric’s 2018-2019 season, and they are finishing on a high note (pun intended). Pacific Overtures should top your list of plays to see. You are making a huge mistake if you miss this one. Spiro Veloudos works magic when he brings these large productions down in size for the intimate confines of the Lyric Stage Theater. After attending a number of these scaled down versions, I could argue this is a better way to see them. Well, it certainly is when produced by the Lyric Stage.
Boston Lyric Stage
140 Clarendon Street
Copley Square, Boston, MA