In 1853, Japan remains a peacefully isolated nation, an isolation that is threatened when an expatriate fisherman, Manjiro (Karl Josef Co), returns home to announce the coming of the Americans. Commodore Matthew Perry follows soon after, with a letter from President Millard Fillmore and plans to open trade between the two countries. Manjiro and a newly-promoted samurai, Kayama (Steven Eng), are employed to placate the Americans but are unable to stop the inevitable pile-up of European contact and the Westernization of Japan.
There is, admittedly, some charm to Pacific Overtures. This modern-dress, pared-down production boasts several strong leads, in particular Mr. Eng, whose boyish naïveté gradually gives way to sneering condescension. In the musical’s best number, he begins by ostentatiously displaying his bowler hat, but by its end, monocled and bare-headed, he scoffs, “The Dutch ambassador is a fool / He wears a bowler hat.” Furthermore, George Takei, as the Reciter, brings his welcome basso gravitas to the narration of the proceedings.
And yet, Pacific Overtures indulges in an East/West narrative that, however well-intentioned, mostly subscribes to colonialist infantilizing of the Japanese. The Reciter’s insistence that Japan was “an empire which for centuries had lived in perfect peace” smacks of the noble savage—are we really expected to believe that two hundred years of Western silence really meant “there [had] been nothing to threaten to serene and changeless cycles of our days”?
Furthermore, this production by the Classic Stage Company is mostly stagnant, dropping the Kabuki design of the Broadway original in favor of stultifying drama bereft of any serious characterization. With the exception of NAATCO, there are very few opportunities for Asian-American actors in New York, and it is heartening to see that they make up the entire cast here. However, as with Miss Saigon, I wish they had been employed on a better project; this one bows under the weight of the Western gaze.