Roundabout Theatre Company
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler
Starring: B. D. Wong
254 West 54th Street
Artistic Director: Todd Haimes
Managing Director: Ellen Richard
Executive Director: Julia C. Levy
Director and Choreographer: Amon Miyamoto
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Musical Director: Paul Gemignani
Set and Mask Design: Rumi Matsui
Costume Design: Junko Koshino
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Marketing: David B. Steffen
Technical Supervisor: Steve Beers
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Executive Producer: Sydney Beers
Founding Director: Gene Feist
Associate Artistic Director: Scott Ellis
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
Matinee, December 5, 2004
Years ago, I saw B. D. Wong in M. Butterfly, and I remembered his strong sense of presence and personal magnetism. I was not disappointed today, as B. D. Wong, as Reciter of the historical meetings, some violent and some peaceful, of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and the Emperor and Leaders of Japan in 1853, as they forced open the borders of a Kabuki nation, one of swords, tea ceremonies, and pure, untouched-by-foreigners soil. Wong has a campy, winking style, relaxed and confident, that facilitates the enormous cast of characters (some performed by actors who double roles, such as Shogun’s Mother (in drag) and Old Man).
This is a musical about fusion: fusion of culture (e.g., later, contemporary Japan), sexuality (e.g., Geisha Madam and Geisha Girl in drag), fusion of puppets and humans (e.g., Commodore Perry as giant monster, flashlight eyes and wild wig, wild nose), fusion of language (but translated into English here), fusion of flags and characters of invading countries (e.g., Britain, France, Holland, America), fusion of sets (moveable walls, golden barriers for interiors/exteriors), and fusion of formality and informality (Japanese vs. American).
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are perfectly suited to quasi-Japanese, dramatic and campy plot and action. Most memorable are the songs of “Four Black Dragons” (the ominous American warships at Japanese bay), “Chrysanthemum Tea” (a poisoning ceremony), “Welcome to Kanagawa” (Drag Geisha warm-up for the incoming soldiers), “Someone in a Tree” (with a ladder and leaf-top next to a Treaty Tent), “Pretty Lady” (a British sailor’s seduction ritual of a Geisha Girl), and finally “Next” (the contemporary Japan of Sony and Toyota).
In addition, the flag-draping of Lord Abe (Sab Shimono), the Japanese leader who is overwhelmed by culturally stylized British, French, American, and Dutch Admirals, including a take on Gilbert and Sullivan (British Admiral, of course), is enormously entertaining. Michael K. Lee as Kayama, who is promoted from low life to one who negotiates with the American invaders and then to Governor, and Paolo Montalban, as Manjiro, who is promoted from arrested fisherman to Kayama’s assistant, (and later, in a change of fate, to Kayama’s antagonist) are both well cast and central to the strength of the production and its fused complexities.
The drawbacks of Studio 54 as Roundabout Theatre Company’s venue of choice are the elbow closeness of the bistro tables and chairs (few in the audience purchased the overly priced table snacks), the poor sight lines (I never saw a watery moat, and the balcony would not see the ramps and soldiers marching to the Japanese coastline), and the general cramped nature of the aisles and stairs. However, the lighting by Brian MacDevitt, the eye-catching sets and masks by Rumi Matsui, and the musical direction of Paul Gemignani, who frequently leads the New York City Ballet Orchestra, are all extraordinary and exceptionally well conceived.
Amon Miyamoto, who last brought New National Theatre of Tokyo to New York in 2002 with a Japanese version of Pacific Overtures as part of Lincoln Center Summer Festival, has again brought a superb re-creation in English language, a bit scaled down, I am told, but ever so thoughtful, humorous, and extremely entrenched in fused culture and characterizations. I would see this production twice, once for the music and history, and once to enjoy the satire and double-entendres. Kudos to Roundabout Theatre Company.
Hoon Lee, Mayumi Omagari, Telly Leung, Darren Lee
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus