Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Gary Griffin
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Navy Pier, Chicago/(312) 595-5600

Reviewed by Kelly Kleiman

In its original Broadway production, "Pacific Overtures" was nearly overwhelmed by its staging. The Sondheim work's modest scope seemed a poor match for traditional big-musical treatment;  if ever a show cried out for non-proscenium staging, this was it.

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, director Gary Griffin has heeded that cry. By reimagining the piece as a chamber musical and mounting it in the theatre's intimate in-the-round studio, Griffin has given the subtlety of the material a chance to shine. Likewise, by holding the cast to ten and the orchestra to five, he makes it possible for the audience to both see and hear the story's impact on individuals, and to assess the ways in which they do, or don't, adapt.

At the very dawn of multiculturalism, "Pacific Overtures" investigated relations between East and West using the critical lens later made famous in "M. Butterfly". The show concerns the process by which the imperial powers pried open Japan against the wishes of its leaders, and the consequences of that contact on the centuries-old culture of the smaller nation. It adapts Japanese theatrical forms (Noh and Kabuki), while retaining the tradition of having all parts played by men. Though the piece is loaded with diverse intentions, it shows its vintage in a book (by John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler) and lyrics that occasionally succumb to the very stereotypes they intend to be critiquing, reducing Japan's ancient ways to a superficial blur of rice, bowing, and flower painting. The most egregious case is the show's very first number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea", but happily the problem diminishes thereafter.

Joseph Anthony Foronda is the cornerstone of this marvelous production. From the moment he appears as the Reciter -- the audience's guide to Japanese civilization and its discontents -- he sets exactly the right tone, an almost indescribable compound of wryness and grief. Foronda serves as the audience's bridge into an alien culture, a role he discharges gracefully and thoroughly without ever letting his charges forget that the culture is alien, and complex, and in some important ways impenetrable. He draws the eye and ear naturally through his physical grace and protean voice, but instead of upstaging his fellows he makes them look good.

If Foronda holds the balance for the production, the scales are occupied by Christopher Mark Peterson and Chicago Shakespeare veteran Kevin Gudahl. Gudahl plays the minor samurai Kayama, while Peterson plays Manjiro, a fisherman. Both men have their lives changed beyond recognition as a result of the Westerners' arrival. Gudahl is both comic and tender in conveying the changes wrought on Kayama, and his solo "A Bowler Hat" says everything there is to say about assimilation. The only flaw in his performance is the gait he's adopted, an awkward shuffle: though obviously chosen to reflect Kayama's displacement and unease, the movements are so odd they're distracting. It's a relief to see them disappear as Kayama becomes Westernized. Peterson is charmingly puppyish as Manjiro, whose sketchy knowledge of America makes him the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, and the actor delicately suggests parallels between the character's acquisition of maturity and his nation's development into a world power -- for good or ill.

The whole cast is strong, equally adept at playing geishas and sailors, pompous priests and plotting lords, Japanese and Westerners. Griffin's decision to include non-Asian as well as Asian actors simply makes more visible the cast's capacity for shape-shifting, while helping to critique the racism inherent in the 19th-Century world's interaction with Japan. Anthony Hite deserves special recognition for silent sweetness he brings to his role as a samurai's daughter.

All members of the production team must be on their game to create this strong a show. As with most Sondheim musicals, the music director has the biggest challenge, but Thomas Murray (who also conducts the orchestra and plays the keyboards) has met it without breaking a sweat, creating delicate orchestration and eliciting note-perfect harmonies from the cast. Choreographer Marc Robin chose moves exactly the right size for the tiny space and understated approach. The design is elegant simplicity itself-blood is a red scarf, a chair represents a whole house, and the Emperor is a puppet. Kudos to Daniel Ostling (scene,), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), Robert Christen (lighting) and Brenda Sabatka (props). Guided by Griffin's concept and his sure sense of tone and pacing, everyone involved in "Pacific Overtures" does himself proud.

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