Sondheim’s sappy samurai

“Pacific Overtures” drowns Japanese history in a reservoir of schmaltz.

Greg Corradini

There are two sides to every story. Supporters of Steven Sondheim, the recipient of countless accolades for his Broadway musicals, probably never hear the groans of his detractors. Likewise, those who view Sondheim’s career as the single biggest blow to American musical theater find his popularity incomprehensible.

Regardless of the controversy, Park Square Theatre and Theater Mu have joined forces to put on one of Sondheim’s least produced plays, “Pacific Overtures.”

“Pacific Overtures,” which features Sondheim’s music and lyrics and John Weidman’s book, is based around Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to Japan. Japan’s ports and foreign trade had remained isolated under the Tokugawa Shogunate’s 250-year rule. The emperor granted the Shoguns – army generals – an unlimited governmental role in 1600. Perry’s arrival in Japan, with his warships, began a process that re-established ties with various Western powers and led to the restoration of imperial rule and modernization of Japan. “Pacific Overtures” portrays this history of globalization as a tragedy.

Except for a few moments of incomprehensible dialogue drowned out by their torrential vibrato, the all Asian-American cast gives the audience a good range of their acting and signing abilities. The entertainment value of “Pacific Overtures,” under the direction Minnesota theater veteran and former University opera theater director (1995-1999) Gary Gisselman, can’t be ignored.

Scenic designer Rick Polenek augments the effectiveness of “Pacific Overtures” with a multi-tiered set. A small bamboo bridge overlooks a rice paper backdrop, adding a simple and convincing depth to the proscenium stage.

Costume designers Mara Blumenfeld and Elin Anderson obviously had their hands full with the number of kamishimos (formal samurai attire) and lavish kimonos that appear throughout the show.

The indulging moments of Sondheim’s compositions, in their sheer narrowness, are the stereotypic portrayals in “Welcome to Kanagawa” and “Advantages.”

And boy, do the stereotypes abound. “Welcome to Kanagawa” focuses on a group of Kanagawa prostitutes, their madam and the economic advantages of the U.S. arrival.

The scene stealer here is Roy Kallemeyn, a robust man, as the madam. Followed by four of her girls, the madam explains, with enough bawdiness to make one squirm, that her old clientele has been scared away. And yet the foreigners’ arrival and the reassurance of an old haiku bring to light an opportunity:

“The nest-building bird, Seeing the tree without twigs, Looks for new forests.”

The opening scenes are a testament to how Sondheim and Weidman gloss over historical accuracy to foreground a terrain where their shallow ideas can play. In Weidman’s dull logic, Japan before Perry’s arrival was nothing but a static island where everything lived in “perfect peace.” In the words of the narrator (Zachary Drake) at the show’s opening: “There has been nothing to threaten the serene and changeless cycles of (Japan’s) days.”

Yeah, right. Like the disparity between social classes that Tokugawa Japan revolved around never rocked the country with unequal wealth distribution, bloodletting and class conflict. Sondheim’s “Advantages” follows Weidman’s lead with a burdensome amount of bathos:

“Gods are crumbling somewhere, Machines are rumbling somewhere, Prophets being crowned Somewhere out there, not here. Here we plant rice.”

Indeed, the Japanese, presented as a satiated, Smurf-like population, seem to have no life outside of their everyday rituals. This cliché is likely to send the audience away convinced that Japanese history before modernization consisted of nothing more than “planting rice, stirring tea, painting screens and viewing the moon.”

The script, which is really nothing more than these naked ideas paraded around, seems to be the predetermined curse of any production of “Pacific Overtures.”

After imperial power is restored, the emperor Meiji (Zachary Drake) gives what Weidman and Sondheim probably consider, in their patronizing view, a moving speech.

“In the name of progress we will turn our backs on ancient ways,” says the emperor. “We will cast aside our feudal forms; eliminate all obstacles which hinder our development. And when the time is right, we will send forth expeditions to visit with our less enlightened neighbors. We will do for the rest of Asia what America has done for us!” And we all know how that turned out.