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Bringing Japan and its traditions to Signature’s ‘Pacific Overtures’

The creative team for Sondheim’s infrequently produced show includes experts on Japanese swordplay, Kabuki and taiko drumming

Jonny Lee Jr., left, and Daniel May in “Pacific Overtures” at Signature Theatre. (Daniel Rader)
5 min

The Stephen Sondheim musical “Pacific Overtures” harbors moments that are not so pacific, not least a samurai battle. Fight director Yoshi Amao was supervising a run-through of this sequence at Signature Theatre one afternoon before the company’s current production opened.

In the rehearsal room, the actors honed the conflict: an ambush, assassination and melee in 19th-century Japan. In a poignant twist, the battle spirals into a showdown between two friends turned enemies. One of them, in the fight choreography devised by Amao, is the more stoic and flamboyant fighter, wielding his sword during leaping turns. The other is less deft and more distraught.

In an interview later, Amao explained that he had choreographed the sequence to reflect not only the characters’ emotions — “Old friends should feel something,” he says — but also their attitudes toward Westernization and social status: The less-adept fighter had Westernized and let his samurai skills atrophy. The flashier combatant had practiced them, partly compensating for his low-status background.

“Always in the Japanese samurai world, level — higher level, lower level — was important,” Amao says, referring to social status.

Amao, an expert in tate, or Japanese theatrical sword fighting, is one of the authorities in traditional Japanese art forms who are contributing to this production of “Pacific Overtures,” a 1976 work that is not among Sondheim’s most produced musicals. Also on the creative team: Kirk Kanesaka, a Kabuki consultant, and Mark H. Rooney, a consultant on Japanese taiko drumming.

Given our time’s appreciation for cultural authenticity, finding the right specialists in Japanese traditions was a “high priority,” says director Ethan Heard, who, like most of the creative team and all of the cast, is of Asian heritage. At the same time, he says, the show demands a balancing act. “It isn’t a Japanese show; it’s an American musical. So how do you weave them together to make it the most powerful it can be?”

Co-written by composer/lyricist Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, “Overtures” tells of Japan’s experience wrestling with isolationist sentiment as, and after, an American expedition attempts to forcibly open the island kingdom in 1853. The story is told in a way that suggests the Japanese perspective, with the boorishness of Western imperialists often contrasting with the sophistication and refinement of Japanese culture.

The writers borrowed and adapted conventions from Kabuki, the famously stylized Japanese theater form: The show’s sometimes-narrator-like Reciter figure (Jason Ma) is one example. No wonder, then, that Signature recruited Kanesaka, a Japanese American performer and professor who, according to his George Mason University faculty page, is the first non-Japanese citizen to become a professional Kabuki actor since the birth of the form over four centuries ago.

For the Signature production — which joins other Sondheim stagings in the area and nation following the composer/lyricist’s death in 2021 — Kanesaka’s work has included tutoring the cast on Kabuki-inflected physicality. In that movement mode, even walking has its nuances. The walking style of a courtier, for instance, “will be very different than a merchant’s wife,” Kanesaka says. “A samurai will again be very different from how a merchant will be walking.”

He has also coached the cast on fan wielding and on how to kneel while wearing a kimono (move the right knee first, as the kimono wraps left over right).

“It’s not about trying to make this an authentic Kabuki movement or play,” he says, “but giving the actors and actresses the vocabulary they can build off of” so as to create a “beautiful hybrid” of Eastern and Western performance.

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Rooney, a local artist of Japanese and Scottish heritage, also took a hybrid approach when devising the production’s taiko sequences, which are aimed at ratcheting up intensity and immersing the audience in time and place.

He has used some archetypical taiko rhythms in the sequences, which are separate from the show’s musical numbers. But he has also incorporated some relatively unusual time signatures “that give a little bit of homage to” Sondheim’s musical virtuosity, he says.

Adding to the drama of the taiko is the particular drum used in the production: a six-foot-tall instrument that, Rooney says, may be the largest odaiko (big taiko) on the East Coast. (It belongs to a friend of his.) The production’s associate music director, Angie Benson, will play the instrument in the production, and Rooney has given her tips.

“Taiko is often referred to as full-body drumming,” Rooney says. “And it really does require your correct stance, utilizing your core, in order to get the big rumble sounds.”

Heard says Rooney, Kanesaka and Amao have imparted intangibles, as well as technique. “The performers see and feel them in the room and can absorb so much information from their presence,” the director says. “Because these traditions are an aura. It’s not just skills. It’s also how you breathe, stillness, listening.”

Amao, a New York-based Japanese artist, agrees that he has instructed on attitude as well as how-to. On the practical front, during the rehearsal, he corrected the way an actor held a sword, explaining afterward that in the Edo period, often defined as 1603-1868, a samurai usually held a sword blade up, not blade down.

That pragmatic pointer complemented a mind-set he says he tries to convey when teaching tate. The swords used in the production are made of wood, but treating them irreverently — stepping over them, for instance — is a no-no.

“Always I tell people: Respect the sword,” Amao says. “The sword is the soul of Japanese. This is your treasure. This is your self.”

If you go

Pacific Overtures

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771.

Dates: Through April 9.

Prices: $40-$103.