"Bowler Hat," from "Pacific Overtures," is one of Stephen Sondheim's most brilliant songs. It delineates the changes in two 19th century Japanese men after Matthew Perry's expedition opened that country to trade with the West.
One man, who has acquired the hat of the title, slowly becomes Westernized before our eyes, proudly securing a monocle, a country house and a divorce in the process. The other man sits silently, while Kabuki assistants in black dress him in the strict costume of a samurai. These men, former friends, represent two possible paths in the wake of the opening of Japan to the West--total assimilation or complete retrenchment.
East West Players, a theater whose very name symbolizes the search for a balance between two cultures, presents a stark and beautiful staging of the song in its ambitious, uneven new production of "Pacific Overtures," the sporadically brilliant Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical. This production, which opened Wednesday night, inaugurates the new 220-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo, marking the all-important move to a mid-size house for the nation's oldest Asian American theater company. Now the centerpiece of the Union Center for the Arts, the theater occupies a space in a building with unique historic resonance for the company; it was used, among other things, as a place of safekeeping for belongings of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. After a $3.4-million refurbishment, the theater is now a straightforward auditorium painted porcelain blue, with comfortable seats, sconces and hanging lamps that look sparse on the high-ceiling walls and a handsome lobby and courtyard out front, in spitting distance of the Geffen Contemporary.
East West has always had a special affinity for the work of Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Tim Dang, the company's producing artistic director, this "Pacific Overtures" has some outstanding aspects, including Michael K. Lee and Orville Mendoza, the two actors who metamorphose in "Bowler Hat." Playing Lord Abe, the Shogun's vociferous aide, and a variety of large women, David Furumoto is wonderfully vivid. Stella Choe is lovely in an important but silent role and, in a variety of parts, Deborah Nishimura sings with the kind of confidence that the score demands. Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez's many costumes are inventive and, in several comic numbers, so hilarious they practically steal the show.
But, despite terrific moments here and there, "Pacific Overtures" appears woefully under-rehearsed and, in places, amateurish. The levels of acting and singing among the cast vary fairly dramatically, creating a patchwork evening. Most of the large ensemble numbers come off as stiff when they should be sparse and elegant. Musical director Scott Nagatani does a heroic job conducting this difficult and beautiful score from a second-tier perch, where none of the actors can see him. But the overall musicality suffers, and half the cast sounds as if they're singing carefully to a metronome rather than really hearing and feeling these glorious melodies.
Sondheim, Weidman and original director Harold Prince created the show around a concept; they wrote it in the voice of an imagined Japanese playwright who comes to New York and sees a couple of Broadway shows then goes home and writes a musical about his own country's history. The result is a merging of Japanese theater and Broadway musical techniques, less a narrative than a series of scenes with some recurring characters.
The songs range from the achingly lovely to baldly comic. Most of them can stand on their own as extremely enjoyable playlets. "Chrysanthemum Tea," for instance, is a dazzlingly clever one-act, in which a weak Shogun (Keone Young) tries to avoid dealing with the American naval ships conspicuously docked at his harbor. He is surrounded by a fawning court, a wife who sings badly (the funny Janice K. Terukina) and a ferocious mother (the also funny though vocally inadequate Alvin Ing), who unapologetically does what she has to do to free her besieged country from a passive leader.
As the narrator, or Reciter, Keone Young starts the show on too tentative a note, though he grows in stature by the intentionally abrasive final number, "Next," which takes an extremely jaundiced view of the loud, unavoidable jangle of modern culture clash.
"Pacific Overtures" has much to recommend it, particularly for anyone who loves the musical theater or who wishes this important company well on its new journey. May East West grow and prosper--and have more rehearsal time--in the shows to come.
* "Pacific Overtures," East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 5. $20-$32. (800) 447-7400. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Keone Young:Reciter, Shogun, Storyteller, Emperor
David Furumoto: Abe, Merchant's Mother, Madam
Ray Rochelle: 3rd Councilor, Thief, others
Michael K. Lee: Manjiro
Alvin Ing: Shogun's Mother, Observer, American Admiral
Ed You: 2nd Councilor, Merchant, others
Tedd Szeto: Soothsayer, Russian Admiral, others
Reggie Lee: Commodore Perry, Storyteller Dancer, others
Orville Mendoza: Kayama, Old Man
Denise Iketani: Tamate, Ensemble
Randall Guiaya: Observer 2, Priest 1, others
Stella Choe: Merchant's Son, Pretty Lady, others
Hisato Masuyama: Fisherman, French Admiral
Mike Hagiwara: 1st Officer, Lord of the South, others
Jason Fong: 2nd Officer, Ensemble
Janice K. Terukina: Shogun's Wife, Geisha, Ensemble
Deborah Nishimura: Physician, Geisha, Boy, Dutch Admiral
Sabrina Lu: Priest, Ensemble
Paul Wong: Geisha, Warrior, British Admiral, others
Kurt Kuniyoshi: Lord of the South, Ensemble
An East West Players production. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Tim Dang. Contemporary choreography Betsy Chang. Kabuki consultant and choreography David Furumoto. Set Lisa Hashimoto. Lights G. Shizuko Herrera. Costumes Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez. Sound Joel Iwataki. Hair and makeup Newton Kazuo Koshi. Stage manager Ricardo Figeuroa.