“Pacific Overtures,” a Stephen Sondheim musical that doesn’t come around very often, opens Thursday night at the Classic Stage Co. The elegant production is directed by John Doyle, the CSC’s artistic chief and the man behind recent revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” as well as last season’s stunning reimagination of “The Color Purple.”
Doyle has trimmed Sondheim’s operatic 1976 musical (with librettist John Weidman) down to a single 90-minute act, in the process cutting a couple of songs beloved to purists. The result, though, is a spare and serene story that seems particularly relevant in a day when nations everywhere are reexamining stances on globalization.
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“Pacific Overtures” relates the story of Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to Japan to open up trade channels. It’s told from the perspective of the Japanese, with the focus on a samurai, Kayama (Steven Eng), and a fisherman, Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), who both become caught up in the westernization of the East.
The title has a second meaning, aside from the musical allusion. It refers to threatening overtures to the island nation by foreign powers such as America.
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In one song, “Please Hello,” members of Doyle’s 10-person, all-Asian cast mock Japan’s foppish suitors by wrapping themselves in the flags of the overreaching superpowers and offering their goods: “Und vouldn’t you like a vooden shoe?” a Dutch admiral asks Lord Abe (Thom Sesma).
George Takei, recently seen in “Allegiance,” is here as a narrator figure, “The Reciter,” who truth be told is only minimally involved in Doyle’s proceedings. The fine cast also includes original “Avenue Q” star Ann Harada, who delivers a hysterical “Welcome to Kanagawa,” in which she teaches prostitutes how to please Americans.
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The contemplative tone of the production is established with the opening number in which the Japanese sing of “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.”
“Pretty Lady,” one of my favorite songs from the score, is handled beautifully, with the slaying of British soldiers at song’s end left mostly to the imagination.
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The actors wear modern clothes. The simple white stage curls up at one end, representing the parchment on which the original commerce treaty between Japan and America was written.
Given the spare directing, much of the action is conceptualized. In one scene, a group of actors come together wearing scarves imprinted with ocean wave designs by Katsushika Hokusai, and then they combine the pieces of fabric to create the idea of a boat sailing on the ocean.
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“Pacific Overtures” is a complicated musical, even by Sondheim standards. But Doyle has shaped a delicate production that’s comparatively easy to parse. One last point: Unlike the director’s other Sondheim interpretations, no one in the cast plays instruments. Here, there’s a separate nine-person orchestra.
“Pacific Overtures,” through June 18 at Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St. Tickets: $70 and up. Call 212-352-3101.
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