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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

Breaking: John Doyle Named as New Artistic Director at CSC

October 1st, 2015 Comments off
The cast of "The Heir Apparent" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Richard Termine) via The Broadway Blog.

The cast of “The Heir Apparent” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Richard Termine) via The Broadway Blog.

Changes are in store for one of New York City’s preeminent classical theater companies. Brian Kulick will step down as the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s acclaimed Classic Stage Company following the current 2015-16 season. Kulick will be succeeded by the company’s current Associate Director, Tony Award-winner John Doyle, who will assume the position in July 2016.

Kulick, who has led Classic Stage Company for twelve seasons, will direct two of the current season’s mainstage productions: Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Tonya Pinkins and Nathan the Wise, starring F. Murray Abraham. Doyle is directing the season’s final offering, Peer Gynt.

Said Brian Kulick, “CSC is one of New York’s essential cultural institutions, and I’ve had the honor and good fortune to serve as its Artistic Director for the past 12 years. Thanks to the confluence of extraordinary artists, a devoted audience, a stellar staff, loyal funders and a dedicated board, CSC is well positioned for me to pass the baton so that I can devote more time to my own independent directing, my work at Columbia University and my ever-patient family. I am grateful to my friend and associate John Doyle, who will carry on the responsibilities of Artistic Director as of next season. I will stay on for that year as a consultant to make sure that John’s transition is a smooth one. After that I look forward to returning to 13th Street as an ardent audience member of one of our nation’s most intimate and electrifying theatrical spaces.”

"Allegro" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

“Allegro” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Kulick was named Classic Stage Company’s sixth Artistic Director in 2003. In its 48-year history, Mr Kulick’s length in tenure is second only to the Company’s founder Christopher Martin. While tripling the theater’s subscription base and general operating budget and substantially increasing CSC’s profile, Mr. Kulick also directed a dozen of the theater’s defining productions including Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Mandy Patinkin, Brecht’s Galileo with F. Murray Abraham, Ostrovsky’s The Forest with Dianne Wiest and commissioned and co-directed poet Anne Carson’s An Oresteia.

Kulick returned the theatre to its roots with critically acclaimed productions of Shakespeare and multi-year programs like the Chekhov and Brecht cycles. He instituted CSC’s popular Musical Theatre Initiative with productions of Sondheim’s Passion and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (both directed by Doyle). He brought new work to CSC with such important writers as David Ives, whose Venus In Fur transferred to Broadway and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. He also created The Young Company, which brings Shakespeare to young and underserved audiences in all five boroughs of NYC.

Said Lynn Angelson, Chair of the Board: “All of us at CSC are grateful to Brian for the extraordinary range of classical work he brought to our Company and for the stellar teams of great actors and distinguished theater artists that he attracted to our stage. While we respect his decision to pursue his career beyond CSC, we look forward to the two productions he will lead in our upcoming season.  Brian will leave a legacy of established relationships with the New York theatre community. We are so fortunate that Brian introduced us to John Doyle several seasons ago, and thrilled to have John continue to build on those relationships and our expanded programming.

The cast of "The Visit" (photo: Thom Kaine via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of “The Visit” (photo: Thom Kaine via The Broadway Blog.)

John Doyle joined CSC in 2013 as the company’s Associate Director. For CSC, he directed the highly-acclaimed productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion (2013, Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (2014, Drama League Nomination, Best Revival of a Musical).

Additional theatre in the US includes: Sweeney Todd (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, Best Director of a Musical; Drama Desk Nomination Outstanding Set Design of a Musical), Company (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Awards Best Musical Revival; Tony and Drama Desk Nominations, Outstanding Director of a Musical), A Catered Affair (Drama League Award, Best Musical Production; Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical), The Visit (Tony Nomination, Best Musical; Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical), Ten Cents A Dance (Williamstown/ McCarter), The Exorcist (The Geffen, LA), Road Show (Public Theater/Menier Chocolate Factory), Where’s Charley? and Irma La Douce (Encores!), Wings (Second Stage), A Bed and a Chair (City Center), Kiss Me Kate (Stratford), Caucasian Chalk Circle (ACT), Merrily We Roll Along and The Three Sisters (Cincinnati).

Said John Doyle, “I am delighted to have been invited by the board of CSC to become their next Artistic Director. To follow Brian Kulick’s remarkable tenure is an honor, as he has done so much to develop a challenging audience and repertoire. I look forward with gratitude to this new chapter in my relationship with the New York theatre community.”

Review: Allegro at Classic Stage Company

November 20th, 2014 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

allegro_800x315

In 1947, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were the newly anointed kings of Broadway musicals, having created two remarkable blockbusters, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), in quick succession. Brimming with confidence, they turned away from material based on other people’s plays and came up with something more personal, Allegro, a show loosely inspired by Hammerstein’s own experiences in which he sought to express the age-old conflict of someone tempted to compromise his ideals in favor of a life of comfort and prestige. The narrative, stressing the allegorical over the realistic, could fit any number of professions, but chooses medicine as its focus. (Hammerstein borrowed much from conversations his own doctor, and both Rodgers’s father and brother were physicians.)

Claybourne Elder in "Allegro" (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Claybourne Elder in “Allegro” (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Beginning in 1905 and covering 35 years in the life of its hero, it tells the story of Joseph Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder), a dedicated small town doctor, son of a similarly devoted practitioner, Joseph Taylor, Sr. (Malcolm Gets). Joe, Jr., prompted by his striving wife, Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), and her businessman father, Ned Brinker (Ed Romanoff), moves to Chicago where he achieves a high-paying position caring for the rich at a large Chicago hospital; in the end, he discovers that he can best serve medicine by returning to his roots.

To tell their story, Rodgers and Hammerstein broke conventional boundaries by using a Greek chorus and a minimalist production in the style of Our Town (which, to their distress, quickly became bloated). Despite some sympathetic responses, the show lasted only 315 performances, not terrible, but still the team’s first (and worst) failure. Consequently, until John Doyle’s superb new production now at the Classic Stage Company, Allegro has been seen locally only in a brief Equity Library Theatre revival (1978) and, just this spring, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. As he did several years ago with his Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, Doyle—who designed the set as well—once more reveals what theatrical minimalism can do when in a creative master’s hands.

"Allegro" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

“Allegro” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Allegro has been pared down to 90 intermissionless minutes and set on a dark-stained wooden stage backed by a wall of neutral-colored horizontal planking onto which designer Jane Cox splashes deceptively simple lighting patterns and shadows. Only a few chairs and benches serve for furniture, with the actors often seated on the floor itself in Doyle’s smoothly inventive and highly polished staging. Dance, essential to the original production (directed by the great choreographer Agnes DeMille), has been abandoned in favor of staged movement.

Elizabeth A. Davis in "Allegro" (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Elizabeth A. Davis in “Allegro” (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

The work is performed by a company of 12 playing 17 roles (41 in the original). In 1947 the principals were supplemented by 23 dancers and 38 singers (some with brief speaking parts), inflating the onstage company to 78, supplemented by an orchestra of 35, making costs skyrocket. As in the past, Doyle’s actors are also gifted musicians, their instruments including fiddles, basses, saxophones, guitars, banjos, and piano; most carry their instruments with them even during dramatic scenes, most of which are underscored by music. Of course, everyone can sing.

Unlike the big Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, Allegro is not known for an extensive songbook of standards, but many will recognize “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and “The Gentleman Is a Dope”; there is also the lovely ballad “So Far,” which Frank Sinatra once recorded. The songs are so seamlessly integrated into the narrative, especially as performed here, that none stands out as a “production number,” so the show streams steadily along without interruptions for applause. The score has considerable variety, much of it sounding rather contemporary, including a song satirizing the inane chatter of urban cocktail sophisticates that goes “Yatata Yatata Yatata”; it suggests the edgy cynicism of Stephen Sondheim, who was a 17-year-old gofer on the original production.

The title song, “Allegro,” conveys the sense of fast-paced city life, “the clash and competition / of counterpoint,” on which the disillusioned Joe turns his back when the ensemble sings the sweetly appealing ballad, “Come Home, Joe,” luring him to peace and happiness in his home town. Audiences visiting Allegro should find similar peace and happiness in the embrace of this sensitive but uplifting revival.

Allegro
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
Through December 14

"Allegro" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

“Allegro” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

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 writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).