Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Pacific Overtures
Signature Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Jonny Lee Jr. and Daniel May
Photo by Daniel Rader
Because of its esoteric subject matter and all-Asian cast, Pacific Overtures is one of the lesser-known gems in the catalog of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Director Ethan Heard's assured production in the MAX Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, uses minimalist staging techniques and 10 immensely talented actors to depict how individuals and governments can influence the course of history–and how it is portrayed.

That sounds pompous, but Heard keeps the action flowing continuously, even hypnotically, with the help of a fluid physical production. John Weidman's thoughtful book begins with the historical facts: after 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world, Japan was forced in 1853 to accept the arrival of U.S. warships and, under duress, to sign a treaty with the Americans.

Audience seating surrounds Chika Shimizu's set, consisting mainly of a walkway to a rotating circular platform, a higher platform bordered by sheer draperies and, above, a large ceremonial drum and a stylized tree; Alexander Tom conducts eight additional musicians from the keyboard from behind a scrim. The walls behind the seating areas are painted in subtle gradations of color, which shift with the changes in Oliver Wason's lighting design.

As envisioned by Heard, the staging of the musical builds from an almost bare stage. The Reciter (Jason Ma) walks onto the round platform, reveals an illuminated square hatch in its center, and pours a bowlful of sand into the space. This represents the sacred soil of Japan, onto which no outsider is allowed to set foot. He and the rest of the company begin the performance dressed in plain gray outfits similar to sweats, but Helen Q. Huang's costumes soon blossom into vivid colors, elegant prints, and silhouettes ranging from the billowing robes of the court officials to the sleek armor of the samurai.

In addition to Ma, who provides the throughline and offers commentary on the action, the main characters are Manjiro (Jonny Lee Jr.), a young Japanese man who has lived in Boston and returned with the Americans, and Kayama (Daniel May), a minor samurai given the no-win task of dealing with the "invaders." They balance each other well as their characters evolve, from Manjiro's belief in the primacy of the West and Kayama's fear of disappointing the ruling bureaucracy, to the new perspectives that come with the changes to their society.

Most of the cast members play numerous roles and, with the changes of wigs, costumes, and sometimes masks, are not always recognizable throughout. Standouts are Chani Wereley as the opportunistic madam of a Japanese brothel, Andrew Cristi as the scene-stealing mother of the ailing Shogun (Ma), and Albert Hsueh as a child witness to the events.

In keeping with the authors' intentions, Pacific Overtures uses adaptations of Japanese staging techniques to tell the story. Commodore Perry (Nicholas Yenson), leader of the American flotilla, and his soldiers wear masks depicting the "barbarian invaders" with enormous eyes and large noses, as do the European generals who join the diplomatic assault on Japan in the second act. (Sondheim's brilliant "Please Hello" ensemble number introduces each nation's representative with a pastiche of its music: John Philip Sousa for the Americans, Gilbert and Sullivan for Great Britain, etc.) Huang also designed winning life-size puppets, operated by cast members, that become the dramatic centers of their scenes.

Pacific Overtures runs through April 9, 2023, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Direction and musical staging by Ethan Heard
Music direction by Alexander Tom

Cast: Reciter: Jason Ma
Lord Abe and others: Eymard Meneses Cabling
Manjiro: Jonny Lee Jr.
Mother of the Shogun and others: Andrew Cristi
Kayama: Daniel May
Tamate and others: Quynh-My Luu
Warrior and others: Christopher Mueller
Madam and others: Chani Wereley
Boy and others: Albert Hsueh
Perry and others: Nicholas Yenson