By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
George Takei discussed his just-concluded run with “Pacific Overtures” in New York and his upcoming appearance in the Los Angeles premiere of “Allegiance” during a visit to the Japanese American National Museum on June 24.
The actor and activist was at JANM for a meet-and-greet with museum members, which included a tour of the exhibition “New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei” and a dinner.
Takei made his Broadway debut in “Allegiance,” a musical about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, then returned to New York for the Off-Broadway revival of Steven Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Pacific Overtures” from May 4 to June 18 at Classic Stage Company.
The musical about Commodore Matthew Perry’s mission to open trade relations between the U.S. and Japan in 1853 — and about a samurai and a fisherman who are caught up in the westernization of Japan — also starred Karl Josef Co, Marc delaCruz, Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, Ann Harada, Kimberly Immanuel, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, Orville Mendoza, Marc Oka, and Thom Sesma.
Takei played the Reciter, a role played by Mako when the play opened on Broadway in 1976 and by B.D. Wong in the 2004 Broadway revival. The New York Times described Takei’s performance as “stately,” while Variety called it “riveting.”
“It went terrifically well. We had a very good run,” Takei reported. “Our director was John Doyle, who is a legendary director. Every one of his productions, he puts his singular stamp on it. For example, in his production of ‘Company,’ the actors were also the orchestra. They were on stage with their instruments, and there was Patti LuPone with a cello, singing while she’s sawing away ….
“‘Sweeney Todd’ is legendary for how he stripped that down, and that’s precisely what he did with ‘Pacific Overtures’ as well. It was a 2½-hour musical when it first opened and all its revivals, but what he did was he winnowed it down to 90 minutes. He cut out one of the numbers that I loved, ‘Chrysanthemum Tea.’ He said he wanted to tell the story as clearly and as simply as he could.”
Takei described Doyle’s “Pacific Overtures” as a departure from the original in other ways as well. “He told the story … of a pure, serene Japan, isolated from the rest of the world, regal and elegant and austere, so the first half was very ceremonial. With the coming of the Americans, the second half becomes … chaos but a lot of excitement …
“But he also, in doing that, captures the essence of the Japanese esthetic because Japanese art is a blank sheet of paper, and a little squiggle here is a forest and a sweep here is a mountain. And there’s that negative space that takes on tremendous power and beauty. That’s what he did with the first act … The stage was a raised stage, and it was pure white, then it rolled up at the far end and there’s a slice cut into it and that’s where the actors make their entrance, so it’s a story told on a Japanese scroll. He used a lot of images like that that served as symbolic, as metaphors, so it was a beautiful play.”
While there were “a few quibbles from some of the critics,” the reviews were “generally good,” he said, and “the final two weeks was a sold-out run with people hunkered down on the sidewalk hoping for cancellations.”
Takei said it was “very exciting” to bring “Allegiance” to Little Tokyo’s Aratani Theatre in 2018, co-presented by East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. “Many people flew all the way to New York to see it … but many people did not, so this is an opportunity to bring it where the audience really is. In fact, this is the largest Japanese American community here in Los Angeles, so it’s eminently appropriate that we do it here with two institutions that are near and dear to me.”
The cast will be different, he noted. For example, Telly Leung, who played young Sam Kimura, “will not be able to do it because he’s playing Walt Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ on Broadway. That has already been running for something like four years … I think his contract is for a year.”
Takei added, “The cast is going to be smaller. I think it’s going to be …13 or 14 cast members. Other internees are going to be whittled down. But what’s important is the book and the music, and I think Jay Kuo’s music is some of the best on Broadway.”
He is also pleased that “Allegiance” was seen in theaters across the country in two one-night-only screenings presented by Fathom Events. “(Co-writer) Lorenzo Thione in his foresight filmed a performance of ‘Allegiance,’ and he didn’t just film it with one camera stationary to make it look like a stage play that’s filmed. We played with a full audience once with a set camera but then we also performed in an empty house but with multiple cameras from different angles, and we had a crane that hovered around the stage, came in for close-ups, panning shots … so it used all the film techniques …
“When we first did it in November last year … we broke all their records with one screening of ‘Allegiance.’ Then on Feb. 19 (the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066) we had another screening and that again broke all records. On that day I was at Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s estate in New York, so that was an eerie feeling for me … I spoke at the Roosevelt Library on the estate and then the people from there went to see a screening …
“Again this year on Dec. 7, we’re going to have the screening in over 600 theaters throughout the country, so ‘Allegiance’ is living in that screen form and I’m sure in many other revivals like the one in L.A. come next February.”
Takei, accompanied by his husband Brad, was introduced at the event by JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs. Attendees had their pictures taken with Takei and viewed items from his collection that are not in the exhibition.