I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering my junior high school history class about Admiral Perry and the “opening” of Japan. We know that Perry and his ships arrived with a double mandate: Get the Imperial navy to stop killing the crews on China-bound vessels shipwrecked in neighboring seas, and, more important, invoke the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in making the Asian market available to Western capitalism. You know – the way God meant things to be.

That may not strike many as the surefire plot of a Broadway musical, and indeed, Pacific Overtures was an expensive flop when it opened at the Winter Garden in 1976 and closed after a disappointing run of fewer than 200 performances. And yet: It was the inspired notion of  composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, book writer John Weidman and director Hal Prince to present the story from the point of view of the Japanese, upending both accepted political history and, not for the first time, Broadway convention. Where other teams had dabbled in “Orientalism” for exotic effect (Rodgers and Hammerstein with both Flower Drum Song and The King and I), Prince, Weidman and especially Sondheim fully embraced Eastern idioms, from Kabuki and haiku presentation to a musical score that delighted in that Sondheim specialty: constantly challenging the ear with unfamiliar instrumentation, tonal dissonance and a minimalist lyrical vocabulary.

There’s nothing dilettantish about Pacific Overtures, and it’s stunning to revisit it at the same time as an uptown revival of Miss Saigon exploits the very clichés and stereotypes Sondheim, Prince and Weidman shattered with such concerted precision.

The new production, which opened this week at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, is the latest Sondheim revival from John Doyle, CSC’s recently appointed artistic director. Doyle is a specialist in downsizing Sondheim, celebrated for productions of Sweeney Todd in which the actors played instruments, and Company, both of which I hated, and, most recently at this same theater, Passion, Sondheim’s ineffably beautiful collaboration with James Lapine. (Doyle also staged the Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple.) Passion, beautifully cast and presented, worked on CSC’s postage-stamp stage because it’s the most claustrophobic of Sondheim’s musicals; even the original productions were practically miniature in scale.

Classic Stage Company’s “Pacific Overtures.”
Joan Marcus

Pacific Overtures, though at times heart-breakingly intimate, is another matter, however. For this production, a marvelous cast led by George Takei as the narrator/chorus/player known as The Reciter, and a brilliant band (overseen by Rob Berman and Greg Jarrett, with orchestrations by Sondheim veteran Jonathan Tunick) works with a truncated score on a nearly barren playing area. Some 10 actors play 19 roles. The set consists of a long white runway that splits in two before curving upward, suggesting a scroll. It’s all rather dainty and painfully tasteful.

The key characters are Kayama (Stephen Eng), a low-profile samurai given the impossible task of turning away the Admiral, and Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), versed in American ways, having recently returned after six years in Massachusetts. It’s a given that the Americans – and, soon after, the British, French, Dutch and even Russians – will prevail. The genius of Sondheim’s score, as Ethan Mordden writes in his skeleton-key guide On Sondheim, is in the way the music and lyrics evolve over the course of two acts from acutely and authentically Eastern (“The Advantages of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea”) to something more familiar, more Broadway, as Japan becomes Westernized (“Next”).

“Pacific Overtures.”
Joan Marcus

The apotheosis of this is Perry’s secret treaty-signing with the Japanese and Sondheim’s account through “Someone In A Tree.” While the meeting is taking place, there are two hidden observers: a boy in a tree who can see but not hear anything, and a samurai underneath the house, who can hear but not see the encounter. The 10-year-old boy and his older self (Austin Ku and Thom Sesma, both haunting) recall the event. “I was younger then,” the boy recalls with stunning poignance. “I saw everything / I was part of the event / Without someone in a tree, nothing happened here,” they sing, lifting the show from the specific to a jolting revelation about how we live our own lives, whatever the era.

Doyle, who designed as well as staged the production (with costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and lighting by Jane Cox), abjures spectacle, and that’s all well and good. But what’s sacrificed here is not the big effect so much as the bold gesture that underscores the seismic character of the history unfolding through these indelible songs and actions. Trimmed to 90 uninterrupted minutes, it’s diminished, like listening to Beethoven through a transistor radio or looking at the moon through the wrong end of a telescope. It demands a leap of faith to fully comprehend. Like the kid, you had to be there.