"Shogun, the Musical" -- not to be confused with "Shogun, the Book" or "Shogun, the Television Mini-Series That Went On for Several Lifetimes," roared into the Kennedy Center Thursday night, displaying in its three hours enough sensational stagecraft to do justice to the Second Coming.
With its 140,000 pounds of scenery, costumes and equipment and a cast large enough to populate a small town, this show provokes the question: When is a musical large enough to qualify for foreign aid? Especially in the case of this one, which includes a shipwreck and an earthquake -- and that's just in the first act. (Not that there are major casualties from these disasters; the actors leap up with such vigor that it seems neither drowning nor fiery moving earth can deter them from their appointed rounds to allow even a momentary limp.)
The producers (who include James Clavell, the writer who started this whole East Meets West epic) and director Michael Smuin have attempted to marry Oriental stage techniques with American theatrical pyrotechnics, and there are many scenes in which they succeed, especially in the second act of this world premiere. A tableau of soldiers on horseback riding through snow, achieved with old-fashioned props and newfangled lights, is breathtaking. There are, indeed, many visual treats: fabulous stage pictures of elaborate golden costumes; exotic palaces that appear magically; rainstorms created with lights; sparks flashing off swords; twinkling fireflies; and flitting butterflies.
By the second act, however, after a long and diffuse first one, you pretty much give up trying to follow the plot, which is convoluted enough for an opera. In fact, maybe this show should have been dubbed "Shogun, the Opera," since so many things about it seem more indigenous to that form. The acting, for example, is generally wooden; the lyrics are hard to understand even when you get the words; and the story leaps from one event to the next without much connection.
Basically, this is a story about John Blackthorne, an English ship captain who is shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600. He finds himself in the middle of rival warlords, falls in love, loses his boat and his mistress and learns a lot about the Orient, including a few things about sex. In between, a lot of people threaten to commit ceremonial suicide if they don't get their way; a number of battles are fought; and 32 songs are sung. (Actually, they're "musical moments," according to the program, not mere songs.) Here, for example, is a line from the plot synopsis: "All are summoned to Ishido's Osaka Castle. Ishido orders Toranaga to remain until otherwise informed. Blackthorne's life is threatened. He accuses the Catholics, who fear Blackthorne could capture their trading vessel, the Black Ship." And that's only about 12 minutes worth of show.
A production this grandiose must have its own distinctive aesthetic to pull it together, to join the essential preposterousness of its various components and justify its ostentation. All the elements -- the music, the costumes, the scenery, the movement, the performances -- should be in concert, not in competition. "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Mise'rables" achieve this, however absurd their underlying assumptions may be.
"Shogun" is aiming to join this pantheon of blockbusters, but until the middle of the second act there is too much that is either out of sync or simply out of bounds for it to work. Why, for example, does the second act open with a light-hearted dance number that looks like a holdover from a 1920s musical? Nymphs dressed in tights and wisps of fabric prance around prettily singing about fireflies, while stagehands dressed in black, Japanese-style clothing manipulate the flickering lights that represent the bugs.
Then there are the "erotic" scenes, two of them, in which the leading ladies disrobe -- they are veiled by a scrim, but there is no doubt about who is up there in her birthday suit. This is just pandering to the expense account crowd and is crudely exploitative of women. The nudity adds nothing to the story, so to speak, nor does the sexual thrashing that follows. We could get what they're doing without having a nude woman writhing on top of the aforementioned English sea captain for an entire musical moment.
By contrast, a light-hearted song about Oriental sexual toys is amusing. It's utterly baffling, but it certainly isn't offensive. (Maybe that's because it's incomprehensible.)
Speaking of baffling, Peter Karrie as the strapping English captain is completely at sea when called upon to act. He's fine when he's singing, and pretty good when fighting, but his emotional reactions seem to be on a timed delay, about three seconds late. All of the performances are one-dimensional, which is probably all that can be achieved with a script this broad. Writer John Driver, who also wrote the lyrics, probably had enough to do getting in all the natural disasters, rescues, betrayals, love affairs, religious warfare and Oriental lore to get too heavily into character development. The cast list gives an indication of the problem: "Buntaro, in charge of Anjiro, married to Lady Mariko ... Omi, a Samurai in love with Kiku ... an Old Man, slain by Buntaro." And so forth.
Francis Ruivivar has better luck as Lord Toranaga, the chunky daimyo (big cheese) who secretly wants to become shogun, a character for whom one-dimension seems plenty. (In 17th-century Japan, according to the program notes, the emperor rules but the shogun dictates the law. When the curtain rises, the country is without a shogun. When the curtain falls, it has one, and a few fewer people.) The only problem with the character of Lord Toranaga is that it's hard to tell if he's a good guy or a bad guy. On the one hand, he saves Blackthorne from death and tries to learn to dance a hornpipe. On the other, he doesn't tell anyone he is scheming to be shogun.
June Angela, who plays the Lady Mariko, the object of Blackthorne's affections, is clearly a good guy. Or girl -- although she can handle a sword with the best of them, as all women of noble birth apparently could. She is also an expert archer, as evidenced by the scene in which she and Lord Toranaga shoot arrows into the air that magically land on the target behind them. Angela has a lovely, supple voice that can handle the love songs, and her duets with Karrie are some of the best musical moments in the show.
Which, unfortunately, is not saying much. Paul Chihara's music rarely reaches the majestic heights it is trying to ascend, and only with the love songs like "Born to Be Together" and "One Candle" are there melodies that penetrate your heart.
Patricia Zipprodt's costumes, on the other hand, are alone almost worth the price of admission. The stage is filled with sumptuous brocades and silks, color that intrigues but never assaults, flowing kimonos and intricate battle dress. Likewise Loren Sherman's sets are a parade of delicate pagodas, columns and palaces. And without Natasha Katz's lighting, "Shogun, the Musical" would be very close to becoming "Shogun, the Comic Strip." Especially entrancing are the shafts of light that freeze the oncoming warriors in a timeless frieze.
Clavell is quoted in the program as saying the show will be two hours long. One can only assume that his colleagues have taped over his mouth by now, because this show could only have been two hours in his dreams. It takes nearly that long just to get all the characters onstage. And however one resists arbitrary rules about the length of shows, there is no denying that toward the end of this one the mind is beginning to numb, and the prospect of yet another battle, another impassioned love song, another poetic death -- even though some of the best ones are in the second half -- is daunting.
The last tableau, of a gold-brocaded battalion marching in front of an enormous orange sun, is truly stunning. But by that time it's hard to care where it's going or who has won the battle.
Shogun, the Musical, based on the book by James Clavell, book and lyrics by John Driver, music by Paul Chihara. Directed and choreographed by Michael Smuin. Scenery, Loren Sherman; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; lighting, Natasha Katz; hair and wigs, Patrik D. Moreton; orchestrations, David Cullen; sound, Tony Meola; musical director, Karl Jurman. With Peter Karrie, June Angela, Francis Ruivivar, Alan Muraoka, Joseph Foronda, Freda Foh Shen, Joann Hunter, Leslie Ishii and John Herrera. In the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 6.