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Barefoot and in stark white makeup, her painted eyebrows arching like gull wings as she bellows the word “Nippon,” Donna Migliaccio stands fiercely at center stage at the outset of the Signature Theatre’s Pacific Overtures. A harsh white light beams directly down on her jet-black wig and shoulders, turning her shadow on the floor into what looks like a slender origami bird, all angles and sharp points.
As she begins to sing an opening number about the feudal advantages of floating in the middle of the sea, this shadowy bird flaps and swirls, seeming to take on a life of its own. Migliaccio steps away from stage center, and the shadow elongates, cranelike, in a sudden rush toward the lip of the stage. When she returns to the center, it darts back to join her and finds a flock of similar shadows at the feet of the rest of the cast.
This striking opening is a declaration of sorts—that the evening will offer precision rather than spectacle, intimate revelation rather than glitz. And indeed, the show has been substantially reconsidered. It has new Jonathan Tunick orchestrations of Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite score that reduce the orchestral demands from 22 players to a far more manageable seven, a chamber staging by Eric Schaeffer in which a cast of 10 plays some 50 roles, and an updated John Weidman script that darkens the evening’s final moments with a reference to Iraq. Not a whole new show, exactly, but a reconceived one that aims for a place in the memory of folks who’ve seen this musical before.
The bamboo bar, let’s note, has been set pretty high. When Pacific Overtures first played D.C. in a pre-Broadway tryout three decades ago, Hal Prince docked a stage-filling warship at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House and found a Kabuki-esque visual vocabulary through which his all-male, all-Asian cast chronicled Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan. Three years ago, the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim festival gazed eastward and brought the National Theater of Tokyo’s mixed-gender, all-Japanese production, which represented the West’s arrival by blanketing the entire audience with an enormous American flag.
So OK, local audiences have perhaps seen enough spectacle, and Schaeffer is known for finding the human pulse in work that’s usually played for razzle-dazzle. So with what, exactly, is the director regaling us this time? Well, his first innovation is in casting. He has an all-white company chronicling the Westernization of Japan in whiteface, with men playing women and women playing men more or less arbitrarily (and in the context of so stylized a staging, mostly unobtrusively). Migliaccio gamely takes on the narrative duties of the Reciter, and her energy and comedic flair are definite assets, though if you know what an effective belter she can be, it’s frustrating to have her stuck for so much of the evening in a lower, male register. She begins the show singing baritone and never quite gets into her natural range. Still, she’s fun snapping out haiku and proverbs.
Will Gartshore is effectively conflicted as a samurai who takes on Western ways, and Daniel Felton is full-voiced as his philosophical opposite, a Japanese man raised in the West who goes Eastern with a vengeance. Michael Bunce is amusing as the shogun’s pragmatic mom, and Harry A. Winter makes a fetchingly clumsy geisha-in-training. None of them look particularly Asian, even with Oriental pageboy wigs topping faces painted to resemble Kabuki masks, but perhaps that’s the point.
Schaeffer’s staging takes some unusual liberties, ranging from minor (a samurai giving his wife a decidedly Western kiss goodbye) to more substantial (a coarsely rendered “Pretty Lady,” during which British sailors seem on the verge of raping a girl they’re usually depicted as wooing rather sweetly). The overall emphasis appears to be on making sure the audience doesn’t somehow miss that Japanese delicacy is being trampled by clumsy outsiders, and that the samurai sword vs. cannon (and ultimately, vs. A-bomb) matchup is a tad one-sided.
It’s hard to know why the director thinks these particular notions need underlining, when they’re pretty eloquently stated in the script and lyrics (and aren’t even the most compelling things Sondheim and Weidman have to say about a Japanese society in transition), but grant Schaeffer his less-than-subtle read on the material. He still animates Sondheim’s comic-patter songs effectively, particularly the Gilbert and Sullivan–esque “Please Hello!” in which the international community introduces itself to Japan in satirically stereotyped ways. Schaeffer builds the number cleverly, using Karma Camp’s sprightly choreography and Anne Kennedy’s cartoonish costumes (yellow wooden shoes for the Dutch, a snow-dusted fur coat for the Russians) to amusing effect.
Elsewhere, the design work is less in tune with the material. Kennedy’s costumes range from Pan-Asian (black ninja and coolie outfits) to garish (lime-green silks lined in fuchsia) to simply odd (brick-patterned kimonos that make their wearers look like walking chimneys). And Schaeffer’s set is more functional than graceful: a raw plywood thrust stage, backed by a forest of skinny light towers (they’re meant to resemble bamboo) and a treaty house that appears to have been assembled from French doors someone found on sale at the Home Depot. There’s also a splendid slatted red sun that sits rather lumpishly at the rear of the stage for almost the entire evening before rising during the finale to the one position in which it’s really attractive.
The musical elements aren’t all they might be either, with Tunick’s new orchestrations sounding thin in spots and the vocal harmonies sometimes taking a back seat to a new interpretive strategy that emphasizes clarity over style. If “Pretty Lady,” for instance, is to be staged as a bluntly predatory prelude to whoring rather than as a flirtatious reaction to a young girl’s beauty, then arguably the delicate interweaving of voices isn’t really what’s called for. As the sailors trap the girl at the edge of the stage, the threat they pose to her is as palpable in the men’s hectoring tone as it is in their aggressive posture. It’s effective, I suppose, but still a loss to anyone who loves the ironic, lyrical beauty of that song.
All of which is uncharacteristic of Signature’s approach to its signature artist and likely to prove a letdown to audiences who’ve understandably come to expect brilliance from Schaeffer whenever he tackles a Sondheim musical. This production isn’t an embarrassment; it’s just uninspired, a reminder to those who’ve followed the troupe from its inception that this talented director can stumble, as he did years ago with a lackluster Company. Happily, he came back the next season with a sharply observed Into the Woods and the season after that with a genuinely searing Passion. No doubt he’ll bounce back again—perhaps with a revelatory Bounce.CP