Pacific Overtures
Daniel May (Kayama) in Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre; Credit: Daniel Rader

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Signature Theatre’s impeccably staged production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures grapples not only with the genre conventions of musical theater, but also with the expectations of a musical theatergoing audience. This revival of Sondheim’s inventive work confronts a legacy of Western imperialism in Japan with a structure that both draws from and critiques the confines of the American musical. 

The musical opens on Jason Ma as the Reciter. Director Ethan Heard, Signature’s associate artistic director, explains in the show’s press release that his Reciter is “a contemporary Asian American man, who acts as a bridge to 1850s Japan and directs the 9-person ensemble in bringing the story to life.” A bit of a narrator figure, the Reciter repeatedly glances at a generic textbook: something vaguely titled along the lines of “A Brief History of Japan.” Pacific Overtures proceeds to recount Japan’s 19th-century encounters with a Western presence, after many centuries of isolated stability. As these early encounters escalate to a violent imperial reality, the musical’s pace begins to quicken and the logic of linear time (like the logic of imperialism) begins to feel meaningless. Sondheim’s experimental narrative lays the groundwork for Heard’s many other stylistic experiments and innovations. The production is a complex reimagining of what might otherwise be known as “East meets West.”

The audience soon meets a rotating cast of figures, led by the samurai Kayama, a complicated role dreamily embodied by Daniel May. Alongside Kayama is Manjiro (Jonny Lee Jr.), a Japanese fisherman and recent transplant from Boston. Lee’s performance is impressively zealous, but equally warm. While this pairing is unexpected, the two men form a camaraderie in difference that grows throughout this musical in complicated and fascinating ways. The cast also features Eymard Meneses Cabling, Andrew Cristi, Quynh-My Luu, Christopher Mueller, Chani Wereley, Albert Hsueh, and Nicholas Yenson. Yenson was quite memorable as an Uncle Sam-inspired Commodore Matthew Perry, a grotesque personification of the unwelcome westerner. Each ensemble member brings nuance and dedication to their many overlapping roles and demonstrates immense musical talent.

However, this production’s Kabuki-inspired concept further complicates the typical draws of musical theater. Originating centuries before the American musical, Kabuki is a heavily stylized form of performance that (while still musical) intends to emotionally distance its audiences. American musical theater, on the other hand, is deeply and emphatically emotional and wants audiences to “get lost in” the moment. Signature’s production proves by example that if one were to combine these styles it would be rife with contradictions—some more unpleasant than others. 

Nevertheless, the combination of styles works incredibly well here. This choice is one that many other productions would likely avoid at risk of irreparably ostracizing the audience or overcomplicating the concept. By ignoring—or embracing—this risk, Pacific Overtures dares the audience to accept that such contradictions exist, much as a history book never provides the full perspective. In doing so, audiences must embrace the unfamiliar; reconsider their expectations for musical theater; and finally, augment a more critical stance toward the events taking place on stage.

Oliver Wason and Eric Norris respective work on light and sound design further achieve such contradictions. These two elements intermittently delight and ignite the senses. Chika Shimizu’s scenic design includes a revolving stage with the audience on all four sides. Adapted from a Kabuki tradition, the use of a rotating stage generated exquisite images on a decidedly minimal set. Behind each section of the audience, watercolor backdrops illuminated the entire theater. Helen Q. Huang’s costumes were exceeded only by the virtuosity of her puppet designs. 

While Pacific Overtures does not fully adhere to the narrative tendencies of musical theater, the story is by no means lost on its audience. Heard’s direction ensures this. Plus, Sondheim is, per usual, sure to include more than one showstopper. Alexander Tom’s musical direction heavily features a form of Japanese percussion called taiko, and his interpretation of Sondheim’s score thoughtfully ruminates on several different styles. While the satirical “Please, Hello” is certainly a crowd-pleaser, it is “Someone in a Tree” that best conveys the undeserved treatment of the characters and the people they represent. A turning point in the musical, this enchanting number showcases the “minor” characters who lived this history, but were nevertheless excluded from it. 

Lest we forget, the history of musical theater is steeped in colonialism and appropriation. Consider even the many imperial terms used to describe the so-called great musicals of our time: triumph, masterpiece, tour de force. While Pacific Overtures is certainly enthralling at all the right moments, the musical more importantly wants us to think critically and carefully about the culture we consume and how we consume it. This production succeeds in part through its attempts to disrupt the expectation that musical theater exists for the pleasure of its (mostly White) audiences. Insightful, moving, and truly innovative, Pacific Overtures is not just a musical to be reckoned with. This production is a reckoning within musical theater itself. 

Pacific Overtures, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Ethan Heard, runs through April 9 at Signature Theatre. $40–$115.