PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Pacific Overtures: An Asian Occasion

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Pacific Overtures: An Asian Occasion
East met West Dec. 2 as Pacific Overtures bowed at Studio 54—ponder that collision of cultural planets!—and, if it had been a fashion contest, the seasoned first-nighters in their Broadway best would have finished second to the elegant Easterners, a rather large and well turned-out contingent with an advanced sense of occasion and how to dress for it.

From Top: Tom Jones; Stephen Sondheim; John Weidman; B.D. Wong; Amon Miyamoto; Blair Brown; Shuler Hensley and Stephanie March; Michael Mayer; Denis O'Hare and Hayley Mills
From Top: Tom Jones; Stephen Sondheim; John Weidman; B.D. Wong; Amon Miyamoto; Blair Brown; Shuler Hensley and Stephanie March; Michael Mayer; Denis O'Hare and Hayley Mills Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Look at these beautiful Japanese people arriving—aren't they gorgeous?" marveled Tom Jones, waiting for his date at the entranceway of the disco-temple-turned-legit. "It's funny," agreed Anne Kaufman Schneider, "they wear Western clothes, and they win."

The librettist of The Fantasticks and the daughter of George S. Kaufman drank in the parade of Asian elite who stylishly outpointed the opening-night veterans attending this musical that depicts the industrialization (read: Americanization) of Japan from 1853 on.

It was a history lesson—courtesy of composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman, revived and revised from '76—and it made its own history this time around.

B. D. Wong, the reciter and over-the-title star of the show, stepped forth at the curtain call and pointed out the "wonderful and amazing and noteworthy Broadway debut" being marked with this revival. "A Japanese citizen has never directed a Broadway musical before," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "An incredible artist named Amon Miyamoto came from Japan . . . [and] tonight he becomes one of Broadway's own."

Miyamoto, the show's director-choreographer, stepped on stage and into a dream he'd harbored from adolescence, growing up on American showtunes, pining for Broadway. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, least of all on stage and most of all on Miyamoto.

"My mother was a dancer so I always dreamed about Broadway," Miyamoto admitted at the post-premiere party bash at Guastavino's on the (very) East Side. "Since I was 18 years old, I've had three idols—Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett."

He only got to meet Sondheim, but it took a Tokyo production of Pacific Overtures to do it. "Steve and I were absolutely knocked out by it," Weidman remembered. "We really felt that we were having one of the most thrilling nights we ever had in the theatre. Because of Amon's background—he has worked so much with Western musicals in Tokyo and is so comfortable with his own Japanese theatrical traditions—I feel that, in a funny way, he poured more Western energy in the piece than had ever been there before.

"Also, by casting women in women's parts when it really mattered, I think he made the emotions of the story more easily available to an audience than has been true in the past.

"Hal Prince [Pacific Overtures' original director] really invented the show with us. His take on it was a fascinating one 28 years ago, but this feels like the right one for 2004."

There was some tweaking—including an Iraq crack in the last number ("Next")—to bring the show up to contemporary speed, but that's not unusual for Pacific Overtures, according to Weidman. "Once we were in previews, we did the kind of trimming that we would do of any show once it was in front of an audience. Every production of this show that we have ever done, I have written new lines for the end of the show. There've always been those five or six lines that have always been new to try and make sure they reflected where the production was. Listen, there haven't been that many major productions of this show so it's not a full-time job, but we wanted to have a maximum impact at the end."

How large the Asian invasion was did not become clear to the first-night regulars until they arrived at Guastavino's and found every table in the joint reserved for investors. The bar was an unbroken line of familiar faces eating standing up between grousings.

Wong, the Tony-winning M. Butterfly, flitted among the opening-night irregulars with the greatest ease and graciousness, posing for photos in corporate clusters, signing autographs to all who ask, maintaining a stainless steel smile even when he seems to be the center of an endless feeding frenzy. "Well, what else am I going to do?" he shrugged reasonably.

"There's no show without money from these people. There's just no show. And it's a great thing to have a show that introduces a Japanese director to Broadway. It's about Japan, and the play is a play that has not been done with quite the Japanese perspective that it has in our production. And to have money from Japanese corporations, supporting the productions—that's a wonderful community equation, and it should be encouraged."

Some of the members of the cast have a past with Pacific Overtures. Sab Shimono, the late-blooming samurai warrior, Manjiro, in the original Broadway production, now has been elevated to Lord Abe—and still finds the show, regardless of the role, "a challenge."

Francis Jue, who last sang "Mammy" in Mandarin on Broadway (in Thoroughly Modern Millie), has risen in the 20 years since the Off Broadway revival from farm girl to drag madam. "I kept thinking back tonight to 1984 when I did the revival of Pacific Overtures up at the Promenade, and my good friend Tommy Ikeda was the madam. He was just perfection, and I just really wanted to honor him. I really just wanted to do it for him. It really felt as though we all were owning the show and sort of passing it on to the next."

Unusual for opening night was a list of replacements in the program, necessitated by a couple of injuries in the company. "I'm doing about 50-60 percent of my show because I injured my knee just before previews began," Jue said. "I have some torn tendon in my knee so there are some things I can do in the show and some things that I still can't.

"There is one other person who injured his shoulder and his neck and was not in the show at all tonight, unfortunately, but he is such a huge part of the company. His name is Hoon Lee. We've had heroic swings and understudies who have somehow gone on for us on a moment's notice. Literally, at five o'clock on the night of our first preview, I injured my knee, and an understudy and a swing went on for me that very night. Roundabout has been so great about allowing me to integrate myself back into the show gradually."

A buff Paola Montalban is the new Manjiro—and no to the obvious: "If I were related to Ricardo, do you think I'd be doing this show? I'd be doing The Wrath of Khan, Part 5."

To have Tom Jones and Anne Kaufman Schneider at your Broadway debut is a small indication of how deeply Miyamoto is into duplicating The Great American Musical in Japan. His credits run from Urinetown to Annie Get Your Gun to Into the Woods.

"Amon is doing a big new production of The Fantasticks as soon as he gets back to Japan," said Jones. "It toured a year or so ago, and I've seen a video of it. It's totally unlike any production of The Fantasticks that I have ever seen. Very interesting!"

Jones will be going into rehearsal Dec. 13 with his first show sans composer Harvey Schmidt, his longtime-collaborator. Joseph Thalken has provided the music for his new musicalization of Harold and Maude, which will premiere Jan. 9 at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Estelle Parsons, Eric Millegan, Donna English, Danny Burstein and Donna Lynne Champlin—"five actors and an orchestra of ten. They're outnumbered."

English finished a gig Sunday up at Goodspeed with Rex Smith, a new musical called Princesses (lyrics and direction by City of Angels' David Zippel; music by his Mulan composer, Matthew Wilder). Next stop is Seattle, said Zippel at the Guastavino's party. "April is rehearsals. We open at the very end of May. And our producers [Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley] plan to bring on in to Broadway in this summer." Schneider will be spending this coming Sunday participating in a talk-back for The Talk of the Town, a zippy little musical salute to ye olde Algonquin crew (which included such worthies as her father, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly, Robert Benchley) down at the Bank Street Theatre. The Times review wasn't all that encouraging, she admitted, but she trooped down for a look-see/listen-to anyway "and I was charmed by it. So I told them I'd come down and talk on it Sunday. The songs are not bad at all."

Copenhagen Tony winner Blair Brown is busy directing her first play—at Passage Theatre in Trenton—Rosemary and I by the author of Nine Armenians, Leslie Ayvazian. "We start rehearsals right after Christmas and open in February. I'm thrilled about it."

Agent Mark Subias had something to be thrilled about, too. One of his clients, Will Eno, has a new play which producer Daryl Roth will install in her DR2 Theatre in January. "It's called Tom Payne (based on nothing), and it's a solo piece for James Urbaniak, the downtown theatre actor. It's an existential crisis, very funny, very dark."

Eno just won Newsday's Oppy Award as Most Promising Playwright for The Flu Season, which, when done at the Blue Heron, was favored by The Times' Margo Jefferson.

Set designer David Gallo, with eyebrows like Salvador Dali's mustache, said he was just back from the circus—literally: he designed the 135th edition of the Ringling Brothers, Barney & Bailey Circus—in to make his opening Monday. Gem of the Ocean is his latest August Wilson set. It'll be populated by Phylica Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Next, Gallo said, "we'll hopefully get started on The It Girl. It's going to be nice to do the '20s flapper thing and not do the Thoroughly Modern Millie thing." (The It Girl is a biography of Clara Bow, shoehorned into her most famous flick, It, by Michael Small, director B.T. McNicholl and composer Paul McKibbins.) "We don't actually have a schedule right now. They're talking about Feb. 14. We're going to be at Dodger Stages."

Oklahoma!'s Tony-winning Jud Fry, Shuler Hensley, and Stephanie March headed up the "Law and Order: SVU" cheering section at the opening. Wong plays forensic psychologist George Huang on that, and they were relaying best wishes from the show.

"I just got back from four weeks in Mexico, filming the Zorro sequel with Antonio Bandaras and Catherine Zeta-Jones," said Hensley. "Film and television—that's mainly what I've been doing lately, but I'm just itching to get back to theatre again."

Roundabout's founding director, Gene Feist, was beaming that he gave Wong his first job in the theatre: House manager, he said. And Wong managed the house pretty well on opening night. What goes around comes Roundabout, apparently.

B.D. Wong leads the cast during their opening night curtain call
B.D. Wong leads the cast during their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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