Lyric Stage navigates Sondheim’s ‘Pacific Overtures’ with a steady hand
During the two decades he has led Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Spiro Veloudos has repeatedly demonstrated his passion for the work of composer-lyricist-genius-national-treasure Stephen Sondheim. But that devotion has never been more evident than in the past year, when Veloudos has staged two of the master’s most challenging works.
In January 2018, he made a valiant but ultimately vain effort to make something compelling out of one of Sondheim’s rare misfires: the mediocre “Road Show,’’ whose muddled book was written by John Weidman.
Now Veloudos is at the helm of another Sondheim-Weidman collaboration, “Pacific Overtures,’’ and it’s a considerably more satisfying experience. You have to tip your cap to the producing artistic director for taking a chance by ending Lyric Stage’s current season with it, because this austere historical musical about the impact of Western cultural imperialism on insular, tradition-bound 19th-century Japan is the furthest thing from a surefire crowd-pleaser.
But “Pacific Overtures’’ — which features intricate choreography by Micheline Wu and a simple but elegant set of four moveable screens beneath a red arch designed by Janie E. Howland — is a worthy capstone to the cycle of 10 Sondheim musicals Veloudos has presented since the 1998-99 season. It features an entirely Asian-American cast of 11, underscoring the diversity in casting that has been a hallmark of Veloudos’s tenure at Lyric Stage.
“Pacific Overtures’’ showcases Sondheim’s unrivaled gift for composing songs — such as “Please Hello,’’ “Pretty Lady,’’ and “Someone in a Tree’’ — that amount to compelling ministories in and of themselves, told with nary a wasted word. (“I’d written lean lyrics before, but with ‘Pacific Overtures’ I tried to make that leanness a style,’’ Sondheim wrote in “Finishing the Hat,’’ his indispensable 2010 book.) And it’s a good thing, too, because — like “Road Show,’’ if to a lesser degree — “Pacific Overtures’’ suffers from a fragmented narrative. We don’t get to know any of the characters particularly well; they exist primarily as archetypes.
What Sondheim and Weidman want us to focus on are the historical forces behind those characters, and the relationship between Japan and nations of the West, particularly the United States. The parallels to US involvement in Vietnam are clear, though perhaps not as clear to today’s audiences as they were in 1976, just a year after the war ended, when “Pacific Overtures’’ premiered on Broadway after previews in Boston.
The chronological span of “Pacific Overtures’’ extends from 1853 to the present day, when the effects of Westernization have become all too apparent, vividly conveyed in the tableau organized around “Next,’’ the show’s final number. The galvanizing event in the musical is the 1853 arrival by Commodore Matthew C. Perry and four US warships in the harbor at Tokyo Bay, when Perry executes a bit of gunboat diplomacy that eventually forces Japan to open trade relations with the United States. “Someone in a Tree’’ captures that sequence of events from the Japanese perspective.
The chief protagonists in “Pacific Overtures’’ are Kayama (Carl Hsu), a minor samurai who is appointed Prefect of the Police and saddled with the task of expelling the Americans, and Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), a Japanese fisherman who tries to give an early warning about the presence of the warships. Hsu and Hamashima are capable enough, but the most vibrant presence onstage is Lisa Yuen, who has also shone at Lyric Stage in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods’’ and “Sweeney Todd.’’ Yuen brings a commanding briskness to her role as the Reciter (narrator), while also bringing a suitable feebleness to her portrayal of the irresolute Shogun. Jeff Song is lacking in force as Lord Abe.
Sondheim sometimes enfolds sinister subject matter within his loveliest melodies. Consider, for example, the lilting “Unworthy of Your Love’’ from “Assassins’’ (another collaboration with Weidman), in which John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme profess eternal passion for Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Similarly, the most hummable tune in “Pacific Overtures,’’ and the one that is likely to stick in your head, is “Chrysanthemum Tea,’’ which is sung while the Shogun is poisoned by his own mother.
The most visually arresting scene in “Pacific Overtures,’’ though, and one that is stylishly executed by director Veloudos, revolves around the song “Please Hello.’’ As emissaries from America, England, Russia, Holland, and France stake their claim, it’s driven home in unequivocal terms that Japan is saying goodbye to national sovereignty.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Music direction, Jonathan Goldberg. Choreography, Micheline Wu. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston through June 16. Tickets from $25. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com