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‘Pacific Overtures’ review: Sondheim revival soars in intimate setting

Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei, Marc

Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei, Marc Oka and Thom Sesma in "Pacific Overtures" at the Classic Stage Company. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Pacific Overtures”

WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., Manhattan

INFO $71; 212-352-3101, classicstage.org

BOTTOM LINE A tiny but mighty revival.

A fundraising pitch in the program for Classic Stage Company describes its mission as “epic stories, intimately staged.” Anyone tempted to dismiss that as hype needs to nab a scarce ticket for “Pacific Overtures.”

Stephen Sondheim musicals don’t get more epic than this preposterously audacious 1976 show about the 1853 opening of Japanese trade routes by Commodore Matthew C. Perry — told, no less, from the perspective of the Japanese. And Off-Broadway hardly gets more intimate than the 199-seat gem of a theater, which, against all spatial logic, has once again tackled the thorniest Sondheim with a compressed John Doyle staging of unusual humanity and enchantment.

When Harold Prince directed the Broadway original, it had massive Kabuki strokes and dozens of men playing 100 characters. An Off-Broadway reduction in 1984 was less pretentious but no less presumptuous — despite exquisite songs and trenchant political irony, it still made me uneasy as an American entertainment on the seismic 19th century invasion of someone else’s culture. In 2002, an all-Japanese import, with English supertitles, ran three hours.

This one is 90 minutes. Chunks of the talkiest parts of John Weidman’s book and some characters have been cut, somehow without sacrificing clarity, humor or the complexity of mixed emotions. Ten actors wear street clothes, one-toed tabi socks and versatile swatches of silk. This time, Doyle — famous and/or infamous for having actors play instruments — instead keeps a small, superbly musical East-West orchestra on one end of the white ramp of a stage. The audience faces from both sides.

The show begins with the ceremonial formality of rituals that the Japanese, who banned foreigners from their “floating empire” centuries earlier, embrace in serene isolation. With little more than the occasional parasol or fan, the tiny but mighty production shows the fascinations and sorrows of modernization and trade. Steven Eng goes from sweet innocence to Western materialism as the poor guy chosen to scare off the barbarians, while Orville Mendoza travels the other way from westernized fisherman to nationalist warrior.

George Takei is dignified and wary as the Reciter, not required to sing much. Some favorite songs are missing — no “Lion Dance,” because no one plays Perry and no “Chrysanthemum Tea” because there is no Shogun mother.

But the gorgeous music still mingles the foreign sounds of wooden flutes with Western vaudeville. “Someone in the Tree” still has poignant wisdom about the unknowability of history. And though realities in Japan and here have changed since 1976, questions about progress have seldom felt as authentic.

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