Signature Theatre smooths out some of the less accessible elements of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures—no Kabuki makeup, no hanamichi (the vomitoria do just fine), no lion dance—but it’s still an effective piece of storytelling, and the music delights. For instance, Tamate and Kayama (Quynh-My Luu and Daniel May) sing their own thoughts in “There Is No Other Way,” rather than through distancing Observers, and the song still works. Jason Ma as the Reciter is positively genial, avuncular; his reactions to the story as it unfurls contribute to its effectiveness.
Non-males are part of the cast throughout, although cross-dressing is preserved for “Chrysanthemum Tea” (scheming Andrew Cristi) and “Welcome to Kanagawa,” the latter for comedic effect. And the production leans in to puppets, using them not only for the Emperor, but also in “Pretty Lady” and “Someone in a Tree.”
“Please Hello” is a hoot, with a nifty wooden-shoe tap dance for the Dutch Ambassador. The half masks for the Europeans are rather terrifying.
- Pacific Overtures, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Ethan Heard, Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va.
Ethan Mordden’s On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, as well as the liner notes from the original cast recording, was quite helpful in preparing this post.