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.
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.
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
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.