Sparkling ‘Overtures’ serves as a Sondheim coda


Alexander Holden, Karina Wen, Kai Chao, with Gary Ng. Photo by Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – American foreign policy is often not as enlightened as we would like it to be. As with anything else, follow the money, and you’ll be able to decipher the motives behind it.

Often, it is based on trade and opening new markets to American goods, and trading those goods to boost our economy.

The Empire of Japan had no such interests for centuries. After expelling all foreigners in the 17th Century, it remained a closed society for 250 years, until 1853 and the fateful arrival of the U.S. Navy, in the person of Commodore Matthew Perry and his gunships.

The history attracted the attention of composer Stephen Sondheim and his frequent collaborator, writer John Weidman.

The result was “Pacific Overtures,” and the production at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston allows Lyric Stage Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos to close the loop with his “Sondheim Cycle,” which began two decades ago with his critically-acclaimed production of “Assassins.”

Veloudos could have played it safe and just played Sondheim’s “greatest hits” but he has embraced noble failures such as “Road Show” and he hasn’t shied away from this show, a difficult, challenging work to produce.

Carl Hsu, Micheline Wu, with the cast of Pacific Overtures. Photo by Mark S. Howard

The North Shore Music Theatre tackled “Overtures” in 2003 and it was a critical success, even if it did not fare well at the box office.

The story is of an unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama (Carl Hsu), who becomes a powerful political figure, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), during Perry’s 1853 attempt to open trade relations with Japan.

The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change, part of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization.

Sondheim has made a career of musically exploring the dark edges of society in shows that mined the psyches of notorious assassins or the bloodlust of an unhinged barber.

Veloudos has scaled back some of the elements of this show to fit it comfortably into this intimate theater, including asking his 11-member cast to assume more than 50 characters. By doing so, he has been able to deploy resources in other areas.

Veloudos’ work emerges triumphant, thanks to adroit casting and a versatile, talented ensemble. Also, his usual attention to detail, combined with his love for both Sondheim and the material, is evident at every turn.

Lisa Yuen is just right as the Reciter, the narrator who provides an overview and who also doubles as the uber-powerful Shogun, the power behind the throne of The Emperor, disarmingly performed as a puppet ruler.

Gary Tomas Ng is a disarmingly funny as the Shogun’s Mother, who wields outsized power.

Each of the musical numbers in “Pacific Overtures” is a story in itself. Take “Please Hello” as the various Western and European powers come calling, each offering Japan an ever-increasing array of promises.

Then there’s the iconic “A Bowler Hat,” in which the governor, Kayama, tells the powerful Lord Abe (Jeff Song) of his struggles with the Western influences that have changed him, and spawned culture clashes that have been taking their toll on the country.

Sondheim and Weidman are not shy in their in its depictions of the invading Americans as something less than benevolent souls.

Always in the foreground are the Japanese rituals, including a wife’s tragic sacrifice, as well as the culture of the samurai warrior, here embodied by the former fisherman Manjiro, who eventually finds himself locked in mortal combat with his former savior, Kayama, himself schooled in the samurai tradition.

Micheline Wu shines as the doomed wife and an ensemble member and has crafted delicate, complicated yet satisfying choreography that values precision, and graceful movements over athleticism in its portrayal of a closed society for whom rituals have great meaning.

You knew that Veloudos would put his best foot forward when it came to the production values, including a delicately hand-painted set by Janie E. Howland, another standout effort coming off her masterpiece work in “The Little Foxes.” Jonathan Goldberg and company provide a masterful re-telling of the Sondheim score, heavily influenced by traditional Japanese music..

Veloudos, in explaining the rationale for presenting the show, said “ It’s one of the final major Sondheim musicals that I haven’t done (Passion and Merrily We Roll Along are the others.) As we are taking a hiatus from Sondheim musicals, ‘Overtures’ seems fitting.”

For those of us who are Sondheimophiles, it has been the ultimate privilege to be along for the ride.

The Lyric Stage Company Production of “Pacific Overtures.” Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland. Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound Design by Andre  Duncan Will. Lighting Design by Karen Perlow. Choreography by Micheline Wu. Mask Design by Brynna Bloomfield. Violence Design by Ted Hewlett. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through June 16.