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Murky Waters: ‘Pacific Overtures’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off
'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Is less more, or is less simply less? John Doyle (Broadway’s The Color Purple and Sweeney Todd)—who has made a career of stripping shows down to their essence—this time attempts to cast his magic spell on Pacific Overtures, the problematic musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) that tells the tale of mid 19th century Japan and the impact of western civilization.

The original production, directed by Harold Prince, opened in January 1976 and lasted a mere 193 performances. A 2004 revival fared worse, lasting only 69 performances. This is not to say that a show’s credibility should be judged by its commercial success, but in this case—including Classic Stage Company’s pared-down staging—it raises some flags about Weidman and Sondheim’s stylistically complex piece.

Set against the backdrop of Japan’s Edo Period, when the country was under Shogun rule, Pacific Overtures follows the tale of a samurai and a fisherman who are forced to confront Commodore Matthew Perry and his troops as they attempt to open up trade routes through gunboat diplomacy. The nature of this conflict, both on a global political scale as well as its intimate underpinnings, has plenty of theatrical potential. But it requires an astute ear to appreciate Sondheim’s score.

'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

There are a few cherished musical moments, including “Someone in a Tree” and perhaps the show’s most notable song, “Pretty Lady,” but most of the score requires a pedagogical undertaking. Doyle does little to elevate or clarify the complex script, instead, stripping it down to an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles (but no instruments, thank goodness, in this case).

The original production was criticized for its hybrid of Kabuki and western styles. And while the extremes aren’t present in this production, it’s still a muddy convergence as the actors—dressed in what looks like a close-out sale from a Banana Republic factory store (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward)—perform on a tatami mat with Japanese draperies and props for accents.

Doyle’s staging, heavy on processionals and other stylized movements, traps the acting company in choreography that squelches any instinct for emotion, which is a shame given the immense onstage talent.

Martin Gottfried, author of Sondheim (1993, Harry N. Abrams), wrote of the original production, “The musical theater is a hot place, offering emotional transport for the price of admission. This show was as cool as a Japanese watercolor. Perhaps its downfall lay in that very intention and its creators’ ingenuity in achieving it.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed.

Classic Stage Company Pacific Overtures Book by JOHN WEIDMAN Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM Additional Material by HUGH WHEELER Directed and Designed by JOHN DOYLE With KARL JOSEF CO, MARC DELACRUZ, STEVEN ENG, MEGAN MASAKO HALEY, ANN HARADA, KIMBERLY IMMANUEL, AUSTIN KU, KELVIN MOON LOH, ORVILLE MENDOZA, MARC OKA, THOM SESMA, GEORGE TAKEI Music Supervisor ROB BERMAN Music Director GREG JARRETT Costume Design ANN HOULD-WARD Lighting Design JANE COX Sound Design DAN MOSES SCHREIER Hair & Makeup Design J. JARED JANAS

George Takei in ‘Pacific Overtures.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Here’s what other critics have to say:

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. AM New York

The sometimes-glorious, sometimes-lackluster revival that John Doyle has staged in Classic Stage’s 200-seat Off Broadway home takes that less-is-more proposition nearly to a point of no return. Unlike Harold Prince’s original production at the 1,500-seat Winter Garden, with its jaw-dropping Boris Aronson scenery and costumes by Florence Klotz, Mr. Doyle starts from zero and adds only what he feels he must. He’s an essentialist, not a minimalist. The New York Times

Doyle stages each song and story interlude with exacting precision and a graceful sense of spatial dynamics, continually reshaping the mood with a deft assist from Jane Cox’s lighting. And while each musical set piece feels distinct from the one that preceded it, there’s a mesmerizing fluidity to the pared-down production — an uncluttered harmony that’s both enchanting and mournfully sad. The story may be confusing at times to those unfamiliar with the show, but the overall effect is transfixing. The Hollywood Reporter

Pacific Overtures
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 18

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

Baby, It’s Cold Outside: ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Spring may be busting out all over, but I’d recommend you unpack your winter gear, get out your compass, and board the nearest icebreaker for Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the adventurously innovative musical now melting frozen hearts at the Second Stage.

Written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis), with absorbing music by Brendan Milburn and sprightly lyrics by Val Vigoda (husband and wife members of the Groovelily trio), this unusual 90-minute work blends music, comedy, history, and contemporary social angst in a multimedia smoothie I promise won’t give you brain freeze.

Struggling composer-musician Kat (Vigoda), a 41-year-old single woman, lives in a cluttered, ice-cold Brooklyn apartment with her crying five-month-old baby. Meanwhile, her negligent, faithless boyfriend, Bruce (Wade McCollum), who failed to pay the electric bill, tours the country as part of a Journey cover band.

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a complex arrangement of electronic musical equipment, including a live-looping machine, she speaks and sings her story while playing an electric violin strapped to her neck, composing and recording it as we watch. (Her playing is supplemented from offstage by keyboard-playing musical director, Ryan O’Connell.) She also chats with Bruce and others (all delightfully played by the versatile McCollum) via Skype, the images being projected on a large upstage screen.

Despairing because of her financial problems—she’s fired from her gig composing music for a video game—Kat tries out an online dating service, Cupid’s Leftovers, “your last stop for any hope of love.” Somehow—perhaps because she hasn’t slept for 36 hours—she gets connected across the years with famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum again), who’s in the mood for love.

The banjo-playing Shackleton, who emerges amid clouds of frost from Kat’s refrigerator, enlists her on his fabled Antarctica exploration of 1914-1917 aboard The Endurance. Theatrically (and historically) simplified as it is, the experience, enacted against black and white footage shot during the actual expedition, turns out to be remarkably stirring, for Kat as well as us, not least because of Milburn’s thrusting, compulsive score.

Val Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

It takes a little time for Ernest Shackleton to warm you up, what with its skeletonized setting, concert-like platforms, and assorted wooden crates; its unconventional narrative style; and its wide variety of still and moving images. Once you’re on board, though, director Lisa Peterson creatively steers you through a string of wild adventures, including climbing a mountain (of metal scaffolding).

There’s also a thrilling journey in an open boat (those crates do come in handy) across 800 miles of open sea during torrential storms, as Kat and Shackleton seek aid for his 22 men, stranded when their ship, The Endurance, gets icebound.

Best of all, Ernest Shackleton is a tale not only of a famed expedition but an inspirational encounter, hallucinatory as it may be, that both enlightens and empowers the once miserable Kat so that she can take control of her life again. An uplifting coda proves that her ship has, indeed, been righted. Who knows? Perhaps Shackleton’s sappy but uplifting message to stick to your guns through the bad times, as well as the good, will do the same for others. As Ernest and Kat sing:

Never mind that you’re out
on the edge of the earth
and it seems like you’ll never succeed
when you think that you’re down,
fight for all that you’re worth,
and you’ll find that you have
all the strength that you need.

Alexander V. Nichols is the inventive mastermind behind the visual design, with spot-on costuming by Chelsea Cook (mainly black hipster garb for Vigoda and polar gear for Shackleton), while Rob Kaplowitz scores highly for his sound design. The icing (if I may) on the cake, though, is the work of Vigoda and McCollum, both of whom have played these roles in pre-New York productions.

Vigoda, a gifted singer-musician, makes Kate a determined presence, attacking the role with vigor (she was once an army lieutenant). But I was bowled over by the bearded McCollum, a tall, athletic, deep-voiced actor, who not only sings extremely well but displays chameleonic virtuosity in multiple roles and charismatic chops that allow him to be commandingly heroic at one moment and broadly or wryly comic at another. McCollum is one of the most refreshing presences on the current New York stage.

I guess you could say I loved Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through June 11

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).