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East Looks West in Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

CFA presents historical musical probing cultural divide

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For the last five years, the College of Fine Arts has mined the demanding, sophisticated Stephen Sondheim songbook for its musical theater productions. Now, CFA’s School of Theatre is staging Pacific Overtures, the composer’s most rarely performed and arguably most challenging work. Set in mid 19th-century Japan, the play tells the story of that nation’s westernization from the point of view of the Japanese. Like last year’s performance of Sondheim’s dark, historic romp Assassins, “it’s not standard musical fare,” says School of Theatre director Jim Petosa, who is directing Pacific Overtures. “It’s very sophisticated material that calls on real intelligence on the part of the actors, who love the opportunity to dig in.”

The play opens tonight and runs through December 19 at the Virginia Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts.

The original 1976 Broadway production of Pacific Overtures was an elaborately staged extravaganza with more than 60 characters performing in Japanese kabuki style, with an all-male cast. (The play garnered 10 Tony Award nominations, winning for costume and lighting design, but closed after six months.) Petosa and musical director Matthew Stern (CFA’16) have cut their coed cast to 15, which is keeping the actors “really, really busy,” says Stern. The orchestra has also been pared down to nine musicians, including piano, brass, reeds, strings, and percussion, with a synthesizer creating the airy sounds of shakuhachi and other Asian instruments.

Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, Boston University College of Fine Arts, CFA, School of Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion

CFA stages Pacific Overtures, the most rarely performed of the works of Stephen Sondheim.

With a book by Assassins librettist John Weidman, Pacific Overtures draws its title from a letter written by Commodore Matthew Perry to the Japanese emperor in July 1853, imploring his imperial majesty to prevent the arrival of US warships by “acceding at once to the very reasonable and pacific overtures contained in the President’s letter…” Sondheim’s ironic use of the word “pacific” sets the tone for the telling, from the Japanese viewpoint, of Perry’s opening up of a long-insulated Japan to the West and thrusting the Floating World into the modern age. The politically edged plot—woven with satire—follows Kayama, played by Charles Coursey, Jr. (CFA’14), a minor official selected to dismiss American warships in the harbor, and Manjiro, portrayed by Evan Gambardella (CFA’14), a young Japanese prisoner who is granted a reprieve to help advise Kayama about Western ways.

Pacific Overtures “is so rarely produced because it’s so challenging,” says Stern, whose musical direction credits include Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along. Not only was the show originally written for an all-male cast, but that cast was intended to be Asians. “Doing racially blind casting gives us an opportunity to explore something really beautiful,” says Stern, referring to Sondheim’s score as a puzzle. The composer “puts together an intricate web of melodic figures; you have to unravel it and tie it together again. You discover new things every time you play it; it’s just totally brilliant.”

Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, Boston University College of Fine Arts, CFA, School of Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion

In Pacific Overtures, Sondheim tells the story of the westernization of Japan from the point of view of the Japanese.

Since its debut under the bold direction of Broadway’s legendary Harold Prince, Pacific Overtures continues to confound audience expectations. Turning cultural stereotypes on their heads, the play “is meant to ask us questions about how we Americans operate as a culture and how we’re perceived,” Stern says. “I think people will find some of the material alarming and I think they should—some of it is meant to be. There are elements of the play that will feel jarringly foreign.” While lighter fare such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, charming as they are, feed on Asian cultural stereotypes and often milk them for cheap laughs, Pacific Overtures reflects deeper cultural considerations, he says. “It’s a piece of theater that asks questions we’re not used to being asked.”

Pacific Overtures runs Friday, December 13, through Thursday, December 19, (no performance Monday, December 16) at the Virginia Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, senior citizens, and groups of 10 or more; members of the BU community can receive one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Buy tickets here or call 617-933-8600.

2 Comments
Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

2 Comments on East Looks West in Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

  • christopher robinson on 12.13.2013 at 10:52 am

    Tuesday the 17th will be ASL Interpreted by REAL and Qualified ASL interpreters.

  • Ed lawrence on 12.15.2013 at 3:24 pm

    Saw it Friday night. I was disappointed.
    Most of the singers couldn’t; the narrators voice cracked during the opening scene.
    I have no idea what the director was aiming for. Did he intend for this to be a comedy or a tragedy?

    There was such potential.

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