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‘Pacific Overtures’ Review: Rising Sondheim

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Pacific Overtures (★★★★☆) sounds doubly refreshing to ears eager to venture somewhere less familiar in Sondheim-land.The score, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, also simply sounds lovely filling the openness of director Ethan Heard’s in-the-round staging, grazing the graceful, watercolor-hued screens set designer Chika Shimizu has wrapped around the Max Theatre.

Alexander Tom conducts a nine-piece orchestra — complete with a booming taiko war drum — that breathes vitality into those plunking, repeated quarter notes that so sing of Sondheim.Heard’s talented cast sings with passion, too, caressing the stories inside the songs to find touching notes of humor, pathos, pride, and prejudice.

The score (and book by John Weidman) limn the fact-based tale of the U.S. Navy’s unprompted arrival in the harbor of Uraga, Japan in 1853.Bearing a letter of “diplomacy” from President Millard Fillmore, who was intent on opening trade with the isolated island nation, Navy Commodore Matthew C.

Perry sailed steamships into the harbor with guns at the ready to forcibly enter, if not politely welcomed.Sondheim and Weidman approach the brewing international contretemps from the Japanese point-of-view — specifically, that of the Reciter (Jason Ma), who sees and knows the whole story, and welcomes us to the island empire in opening number “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.”Foreigners once were welcome in Japan, but that was 250 years before Perry arrived, the Reciter explains.

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