Stephen Sondheim has said that when he and John Weidman created their 1976 musical Pacific Overtures, they tried to adopt the viewpoint of a Japanese playwright.
Proof of how magnificently they achieved this goal is currently on view in the breathtaking production imported to Washington from the New National Theatre, Tokyo, as the final offering in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration. An American seeing this production in Japan might well conclude it was the creation of a Japanese composer and librettist.
There's a wonderful and welcome irony to this. Librettist Weidman and composer/lyricist Sondheim are writing about an Eastern culture that was violated and appropriated by Western interests, beginning with the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853. When that story is told by the Japanese themselves, however, it is re-appropriated. The Japanese get some of their own back - at the same time that their sense of loss is heartrendingly deepened.
Coupled with this heightened resonance, director Amon Miyamoto's interpretation displays consummate artistry, from the nuanced acting and rich voices of the large cast to the ingenious visual imagery. Regrettably, this exquisite theatrical event (performed in Japanese with English subtitles) runs only through Sunday - not nearly long enough for a must-see production.
"Hello Again," the first number in the second act, is a fitting example of the production's insight, scope and majesty. Unsuccessful at rebuffing the overtures of Perry and the United States government, Japan - represented by the recently promoted new shogun, Abe (Ben Hiura) - is visited first by an American admiral, then by his British, Dutch, Russian and French counterparts.
With many country-specific references, ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to the can-can, the number has always been clever. But as realized by director Miyamoto, choreographer Rino Masaki and costume designer Emi Wada, it takes on added meaning. One by one, the admirals, wearing garishly colored wigs and matching gloves, present their countries' flags to Abe, draping them around the shogun's neck. (Significantly, all the flags are red, white and blue, a reminder of which country began this incursion.)
Each admiral then grasps one end of his particular flag and marches in a circle around the increasingly bewildered Abe. The shogun becomes the hub of a wheel, and the flags become the spokes. With explosions blaring and lights flashing, the image leaves no doubt that while Japan may be the center of interest, it is being driven against its will by outside forces.
As the director explains in a program note, his production relies primarily on the spare Noh style of Japanese theater, instead of the more elaborate Kabuki, which predominated in the Broadway original. A few major Kabuki devices remain, however. As called for in the libretto, one of these is the character of the Reciter (playfully depicted by Takeharu Kunimoto), who also portrays the first shogun and the adult emperor. Another is the use of a hanamichi, or runway, which here extends down the middle of the theater, from the edge of the stage to the back of the audience. Wearing lion-like wigs and masks, Perry and his men make an imposing entrance on this runway, while a huge American flag unfurls overhead.
To illustrate the human toll exacted by the opening of Japan to the West, Weidman created two central characters, Kayama and Manjiro, movingly played by Shuji Honda and Masaki Kosuzu. Kayama is a samurai "of little consequence" who is put in charge of turning away the Americans because no one of importance will deal with these "barbarians." Manjiro is a fisherman who has returned to Japan after being shipwrecked in the United States and whose help is enlisted by Kayama.
In the first act, the two men express their opposing views of the West in "Poems," a song in which they create alternate verses; Kayama extols his wife and the natural beauty of Japan, and Manjiro's recall the wonders of America. By the second act, they have traded outlooks. In the poignantly performed, "A Bowler Hat," Kayama becomes increasingly Westernized, gaining such accoutrements as a monocle and pocket watch as he sings, "One must keep moving with the times." Across the stage, Manjiro moves backward in time, taking up the traditional robes and sword of the samurai.
There's a good deal of humor in the production as well, the highpoint being "Welcome to Kanagawa," a song in which a madam (Atsushi Haruta) attempts to prepare her silly, bumbling courtesans for the arrival of foreign clients.
But the serious consequences of Westernization are what come across most strongly, and the New National Theatre includes one crucial historic episode that was glossed over on Broadway - World War II. In the concluding song, "Next," which features a litany of Japan's modern triumphs, director Miyamoto inserts a reference to the war in the form of Perry's anachronistic return. His reappearance on the hanamichi is accompanied by bomb blasts of light and sound that level the rest of the cast and sends several large pieces of scenery crashing onto the stage. Rising from the dead in the end, the actors sing of future progress with new, strident determination.
Sondheim and Weidman attended this spellbinding production during its original run in Japan, and the composer urged the Kennedy Center to include it in the celebration of his work. The four-month Washington festival has ably demonstrated Sondheim's place as America's foremost living musical theater composer. But seeing a Japanese interpretation of one of his most challenging musicals takes the celebration's achievement one step further. It reinforces the composer's place on the world stage by showing that, far from being hampered by language and cultural differences, his work is illuminated by them.
To read J. Wynn Rousuck's interview with Stephen Sondheim, go to www.baltimoresun.com/sondheim.
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