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Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures Brings Magical Realism to Japanese Culture at Signature Theatre

Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures Brings Magical Realism to Japanese Culture at Signature Theatre

Pacific Overtures
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
March 22, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Eymard Meneses Cabling (Lord Abe) and the cast of Pacific Overtures. (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Thanks to the brilliance of multi-Emmy Award-winning Book writer, John Weidman (an early Sondheim collaborator), who has updated some of the 50-year-old material in Pacific Overtures, and the adaptation by the eminent Hugh Wheeler this production is now more relevant than it has ever been. It presents as a well-curated collection of precious gifts – each one a surprise. Throughout both acts I was in a constant state of wow. It differs from some other Sondheim musicals in that, although there is the distinct aspect of magical realism, there is also a political message cleverly couched between the indisputable lure of Asian culture and its bellicose history. Told by the Reciter (Jason Ma), it begins with a tea ceremony on the island empire and tells of a lowly fisherman Kayama (Daniel May) who navigates a complicated journey in the worst of times.

Quynh-My Luu (Photo/Shannon Finney)

In its representation of mid-19th century life in Japan, its formality, its chrysanthemum tea ceremonies, and its well-defined class structure under the emperor, we behold exquisite costumes – lavish kimonos and stylized papier maché hair designs. Newly hired Associate Artistic Director Ethan Heard has assembled a unique and uber-talented crew to flesh out all the details and it is mightily impressive. Silks are wafted like ocean waves and a circular stage that turns in the center to reveal all sides of the characters and their interactions. From behind Japanese scrims fan-twirling geishas hide and giggle as they plot their welcoming of the American sailors. The raking of sand sculptures imbedded in the stage floor show no hint of inner chaos. Stylized depictions of Kabuki theater allow each minute detail of Japanese culture to be honored and observed. It is both elegant and intentional.

Pacific Overtures’ charm is scintillating. Characters in hyper-distorted masks pop seemingly out of nowhere, some as hyper-politicized puppets, symbols of the way Japan saw America in the days of the Shogun, others as comical and cute in a nod to Japanese Manga comics.

Chani Wereley (Madam) and Jason Ma (Reciter) with Quynh-My Luu, Albert Hsueh, Andrew Cristi, and Christopher Mueller. (Photo/Daniel Rader)

The stage is divided into two major areas. A second story holds the largest Wadaiko drum on the East Coast. Played to accentuate the sword-wielding samurais and kenjutsu fighting, it is dramatic and thundering. Beside the drum high up under a gingko tree sits a life-like puppet of Emperor Meiji on his throne. He was only one year old when America entered the Japanese harbor and threatened to come ashore. Up until then no foreigner had ever been permitted to enter the country since 1603, but Commodore Perry was determined to open trade routes even if he had to bomb the country to smithereens. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and he weaseled his way into the country by hook and by crook.

Though the rarely produced Pacific Overtures has the distinct signature of Sondheim’s better-known musicals and complex plots, there is a charming Gilbert & Sullivan levity in some of its ditties. How perfect that this wonderful production should come to us at cherry blossom time.

Highly recommended!!!

The cast of Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre (Photo/Daniel Rader)

With Quynh-My Luu as Tamate; Alex Koichi Beard as Manjiro; Eymard Meneses Cabling as Lord Abe; Andrew Cristi as Mother of Shogun; Albert Hsueh as Boy; Jonny Lee Jr. as Manjiro; Joey Ledonio as Mother of the Shogun understudy; Christopher Mueller as Warrior and others; Ashley D. Nguyen as Tamate/Madam understudy; Chani Wereley as Madam/Others; Nicholas Yenson as Perry/Others; Ryan Sellers as Lord Abe/Warrior/Perry understudy.

Direction and Musical Staging by Ethan Heard; Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Conducted by Alexander Tom; Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler; Scenic Design by Chika Shimizu; Costume & Puppet Design by Helen Q. Huang; Lighting Design by Oliver Wason; Sound Design by Eric Norris; Kabuki Consultant Kirk Kanesaka; Fight Director Yoshi Amao; Taiko Consultant Mark H. Rooney.

Through April 9th at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 703 820-9771. 

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