PLAYING AROUND: Pacific Overtures, South Pacific, Garden of Earthly Delights

Musical theater buffs thrive on scarcity, and few things were scarcer last week than tickets to Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures at the York Theater and the NYU Theater Department's production of South Pacific. I guess that means I'm far from alone in preferring intimate, re-imagined revivals of Broadway shows to the splashy original productions.

The York Theater Company performs in a church on the Upper East Side (Church of the Heavenly Rest), so when you walk in you smell "low budget" and your expectations are sufficiently lowered that the resourcefulness of the production takes your breath away. It starts in the very first number when director Fran Soeder, with the simplest means of staging and lighting, establishes four layers of visual depth by the end of the first chorus, and it continues through to the very end of the show when the actors come out mostly in contemporary street dress, some with period makeup on, and the audience gets to look closely at them, dozens of impressions of Asian culture from Kabuki to Flashdance fashion to the corner Korean vegetable market mingling in one theatrical tableau.

Pacific Overtures has always seemed a formidable work by Sondheim, both because the score experiments with Eastern repetition and song forms, and because the concept seems heady and intellectual. A Broadway musical that uses the opening of the Orient as a metaphor for the mixed blessing of progress? Dozens of exquisite ambivalences make the show seem terribly complicated in theory, but the York production came off as quite clear and very beautiful in portraying the counterpoints of the story. Everything is parallel action -- for instance, the main stories depict a Westernized Japanese sailor who learns to embrace his heritage and becomes a samurai, and a lowly peasant who rises through official responsibility to become a petit bourgeois bureaucrat. And the numbers are theatrically conceived to convey techniques of Eastern theater in an accessible manner -- "There Is No Other Way" is sung by two male observers while a man playing a woman enacts silently a wife's preparation to kill herself rather than suffer her husband's disgrace (very well performed, incidentally, by John Baray, Tim Ewing, and Lester Mau).

There are other wonderful songs ("Welcome to Kanagawa," "Pretty Lady," "A Bowler Hat") but the show's most spectacular set piece is "Someone in a Tree," which manages to condense the show's meaning in one incident while being narratively unorthodox and emotionally moving at the same time. An old man, his younger self, the show's narrator, and a soldier who literally comes out of nowhere recall the conference where the first treaty between the U.S. and Japan was signed with no awareness whatever of its historical significance. One of the song's several interlocking refrains goes, "I'm a fragment of the day -- I am here," and it expresses an amazing combination of sentiments (being a part of history and yet outside it, being fully alive here and now yet a speck in the eye of time) that I continue to chew over).

Ernest Abuba is quite wonderful as the show's narrator, even if his singing could be better, and there are very good performances as well by Francis Jue (the boy in "Someone in a Tree"), Thomas Ideda, and Henry Ravelo, although all the actors play multiple roles and are generally quite good. James Morgan's set, Mary Jo Dandlinger's lighting, and Mark Passerell's costumes are all commendable, and those always looking for the future in musical theater should keep an eye on Fran Soeder.

I'd say the same about Anne Bogart, except that her vision as a director is so subversive I can't imagine mainstream producers taking an interest. Her astonishing version of South Pacific used 39 students and five musicians to create an Orwellian rethinking of the show, setting it in an institution where Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are used to teach disturbed kids to adjust to proper (rigid) social roles.
[Note: I later learned that I misunderstood this premise -- they were supposed to be shell-shocked war veterans being rehabilitated back into civilian society.] A clinical/sinister white-coated doctor supervised all the proceedings without a word, and the musicians were dressed as nurses and interns accompanying a sort of talent-show pageant put on by their hyperactive charges. Once introduced, this conceptual framework remained subsidiary to the melodrama of South Pacific except when things got out of hand, as they periodically did (not unlike Marat/Sade, which of course must have been a model of sorts for the production). And in the final moment of the show, just when we were rejoicing that Emile had won the girl by forsaking his nasty individuality and fighting the Japs with the rest of the good old American team, all the kids turned and paid tribute with trinkets and smiles to the Big Brother-like head doctor. "The whole picture of the South Pacific has changed" -- indeed!

Both exaggerating and sending up old-fashioned musicals' ideas of enforced heterosexuality and patriotism (which, like hate and fear, have to be "Carefully Taught," as the show's big message and song go), Bogart's South Pacific was hilariously funny, at times a bit confused conceptually (what was that battle scene in act two all about?), but effectively satirical. It could have been a campy spoof of the past or a Ping Chong-like futuristic fantasy, but what made it so chilling was how perfectly it caught today's Yuppie conformism.

Surprisingly for such an avant-garde event, the score was taken very seriously and for the most part beautifully sung (especially by Geoffrey Nauffts as Cable, the guy who sings "Younger than Springtime," and Malerie Rose, very Bette-Midler-doing-Brecht as Bloody Mary). Bogart got a lot of help from musical director Jeff Halpern and choreographer Mary Overlie on such brilliant sequences as the half-naked boys' jitterbugging with each other before breaking into "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," the leggy girls' Busby Berkeley routine in the middle of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" (rising to an insane pitch as the inmates got stuck on "I'm in love I'm in love I'm in love I'm in love I'm in love I'm in..."), the syntho-Polynesian Nina Hagenesque rendition of "Happy Talk," and "Honey Bun," the big drag number with girls in tuxes and boys in gowns joyously acting out sexual degradation while making the weird most of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics ("I call her hips Twirly and Whirly" -- ???). And for a student production, it was extraordinarily well designed. Ted Boerner's set used neutral white screens and Plexiglas walls to create a dozen different playing spaces.

Martha Clarke's The Garden of Earthly Delights, produced by Lyn Austin's Music-Theater Performing Group at St. Clement's, is a visually arresting dance-drama based on Hieronymus Bosch's painting of the same name. As an abstract work, it's quite wonderful in suggesting that movement is music taken into another dimension and vice versa, playing images of primitive civilization and concrete existence (trees and potatoes are the major props) against images of fantasy and flight. But like Clarke's adaptation of Kafka, A Metamorphosis in Miniature, it is too nice. Bosch's work is savage, dark, frightening in ways never suggested by Clarke's lovely dance.

New York Beat, April 18, 1984