Brilliantly Adventurous and Rare Sondheim at Lyric Stage

Pacific Overtures, Lyric Stage Company of Boston. (through June 16. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com)

By Jules Becker

It should come as no surprise that “Pacific Overtures” continues to be one of Stephen Sondheim’s most rarely produced musicals. Arguably his most ambitious, the Tony Award-nominated 1976 work calls for a kabuki staging in which men take on both male and female roles and stage hands dressed in black change sets in full view of the audience. At the same time, East meets West thematically and musically as performers tackle a dauntingly clever score combining non-pentatonic pieces and Western numbers.

If anyone locally is up to these challenges it is Sondheim maven Spiro Veloudos (inspired editions of “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” among others). Not surprisingly, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston producing artistic director captures both the style and the substance of “Pacific Overtures” in his company’s brilliantly adventurous revival.

Make no mistake. This is not the controversial 2017 Off-Broadway revival by John Doyle (of no-frills “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” editions fame) that cut the distinctive number “Chrysanthemum Tea” and the menacing first act-closing “Lion Dance” by America’s Commodore Perry. Here the “Tea” song has the right dark humor. Micheline Wu’s crisp choreography gives Kai Chao riveting moments of fiery movement in Perry’s dance. By contrast, Veloudos and company are exploring the full richness of Sondheim and book author John Weidman’s conception and the striking poetry that runs through the musical’s evocative score.

Carl Hsu and Micheline Wu with other cast members of the Lyric Stage Company’s production of ‘Pacific Overtures.’ (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Right from the start, Lyric Stage Company embraces the show’s vivid respect for Japanese culture in Janie E. Howland’s elegant scenic design — most notably in high screens that form a kind of Japanese mural one moment and revolve to reflect a different attitude at another. Gail Astrid Buckley’s telling costumes smartly capture the respective buffoonish demeanors of the British, Dutch, Russian and French admirals and their humorous posturing as they arrive one by one after Perry makes his 1853 trip to Japan with representation from President Millard Fillmore.

In his playbill director’s notes, Veloudos notes that “Pacific Overtures” resonates even today in terms of American or other Western involvement in foreign countries. This singularly thoughtful musical also stands as a constant reminder that the best path to understanding between countries is often mutual cultural respect.

Veloudos rightly takes his cue from Sondheim, who sublimely details the historic visit from a Japanese point of view through a narrator known as Reciter — a role sharply played by Lisa Yuen. Sondheim and Weidman respectfully invoke the name Nippon for Japan. In a show purposely lacking a clear central character, the focal relationship between samurai turned government official Kayama and fisherman turned samurai Manjiro becomes the running pivotal element. Carl Hsu as Kayama and Sam Hamashima as Manjiro seem to establish a friendship via haiku in the engaging number “Poems.” Hsu catches Kayama’s uncertainty about Western ways and culture in the lyric-strong number “A Bowler Hat.” In a versatile gender-bending ensemble, Gary Thomas Ng is a standout playing men and women — particularly Shogun’s Mother. Micheline Wu captures the vulnerability and angst of Tamate (Kayama’s wife). Veteran Lyric Stage music director Jonathan Goldberg conducts the intimately small orchestra with matching sensitivity.

In the playbill, this gifted director speaks of taking a little break from Sondheim for a while. This critic looks at this masterful revival of “Pacific Overtures” and asks that Veloudos return to the composer’s repertoire as soon as possible to tackle the rarely staged “Passion.”

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