The main character of the Alliance Theatre's Pacific Overtures is not a person but a country. The Stephen Sondheim musical, directed by Kent Gash, depicts Japan's first encounter with America in 1853. The arrival of Commodore Perry ended the nation's long isolationism with effects on the Japanese psyche that continue to this day, according to the play.
Pacific Overtures makes an interesting history lesson and a lavish showcase of Japanese fashion and theatrical styles, but provides almost no points of emotional connection. The characters range from lowly villagers to the infant Emperor himself and are played by an all-male cast, following the traditions of Japanese theater. The decision pays off at times, particularly with Allan Mansager's delicate, minimal dance as Kayama's mournful wife. But "Welcome to Kanagawa," a brothel song led by Alan Muraoka, merely proves to be a tediously campy drag show.
Overtures presents America from the Japanese point of view, and when we first see Commodore Perry and his fellow sailors, they're dressed in garish masks of the Japanese Noh tradition to emphasize their alien nature. As Perry, Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua sports a mane of red hair and the Stars and Stripes on his sleeves for a wordless, Kabuki-style "lion dance" that symbolizes American pride, power and foolishness. Paul Tazewell designs marvelous costumes, although the "bald" hairpieces for the samurai topknots look like shower caps.
The closest the musical comes to a hero is minor samurai Kayama (Steven Eng), ordered to repel Perry's four ships on their arrival. We sympathize with Kayama's impossible task to accommodate both the implacable West and inscrutable East. Kayama only has two songs, but his second-act number, "A Bowler Hat," describes his gradual Westernization in the form of letters written over years. "A Bowler Hat" finds the personal cost in the sweep of history, and so effectively lays out Pacific Overtures themes as to make the rest of the play superfluous, for all its pageantry.
Pacific Overtures plays through June 1 at the Alliance Theatre Company, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $17-$46. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.
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