When poor Philip Casnoff was bonked on the head by a huge piece of falling scenery during a preview of "Shogun, the Musical" last week, it was really the first involving moment of the evening.
Theoretically, we ought to have been involved before then, for virtually every other scene has someone committing ritual suicide or threatening it. But these startling events happen so often, so rapidly, and, for the most part, so perfunctorily, that it is easy to tune out emotionally.
John Driver's adaptation of James Clavell's novel suggests a new and potentially interesting theatrical innovation: Evelyn Wood Speed Theater. The plot is narrated with such dizzying speed, its zillion twists come at you so relentlessly you quickly cease to care.
Many of the events in the story of an Elizabethan sailor cast ashore in early 17th-century Japan hinge on the rigid and - for Westerners - inhumane social and moral codes of medieval Japan. If the show delved into these thorny issues it might be genuinely absorbing. But each of the bizarre customs that sets off a crisis seems introduced mainly to shock the audience rather than to understand another way of life.
Driver's lyrics seems unfocused, and Paul Chihara's music sometimes sets them awkwardly. At times the score has a soft-rock mood, hardly apt for 17th-century Japan. At other times it has the syrupy, mildly operatic style of late Lloyd Webber. A classically trained musician, Chihara often adds some unexpectedly "serious" material, generally at the end of the number, forcing the singer into the upper reaches of his or her voice. Invariably these passages seem out of synch with the rest of the number.
Such stylistic inconsistencies seem characteristic of the show itself, which has no discernible point of view, except, in the manner of the British musicals, to be visually impressive. This it certainly achieves, particularly in an unending parade of sumptuous costumes and an especially beautiful evocation of warriors on horseback toward the end of the show. Natasha Katz' lighting is stunning throughout.
The show's greatest assets are its performers, particularly June Angela, who is convincing as both a loving woman and a skillful warrior. She uses her small but sweet soprano voice movingly. Casnoff, who plays the Englishman, sings beautifully, but the part does not allow him the emotional range of, say, "Chess," which demanded - and got - more of his talent.
Frances Ruivivar makes a powerful impression as the man who would be shogun, and there are touching performances by Eric Chan and JoAnn M. Hunter as a pair of starcrossed lovers. Freda Foh Shen handles the vulgar role of a brothel owner with class. John Herrera and Joseph Foronda make convincing villains.
Michael Smuin's direction is spirited, and he has staged a complex chase scene very well. But his choreography has more glitz than substance.
The first five minutes of the show, with lasers, plenty of smoke, a splendid moving-ship effect, men banging ritual drums and lots of commotion, defines "Shogun." It's full of surface thrills, with nothing underneath.
There can be no doubt whatsoever about the seriousness of "Shogun - The Musical," which opened last night at the Marquis Theater. It is as unremittingly serious as triviality can ever hope to be.
Time was when it seemed daringly downbeat in "The King and I" to have even a solitary hero dying at the end of the show, but "Shogun - The Musical" can boast a body count that makes even our subway system seem Nirvana.
The musical is based on a best-selling epic novel by James Clavell (which I unfortunately have not read), and that has already provided the basis for a best-watched TV miniseries (which I unfortunately did not see).
Thus I started as a "Shogun" virgin, but as Clavell is also a principal producer of the Broadway show, I presume that the resultant musical matches his intentions. And strange intentions they seem to be.
The story is so complex that it requires a long synopsis in the Playbill and could still advantageously use supertitles, as in opera. However I gathered that it was about a 17th-century English sea captain John Blackthorne, who, on his way from Chile, gets shipwrecked on the Japanese coast.
Blackthorne here finds himself thrown into a power struggle between Japanese princes fighting to acquire the vacant Shogunate, as the Shogun, in fact, rules the puppet Emperor and is master of Japan.
Into all these samurai comings and seppuku goings, we have a party of crooked Portuguese Jesuits who had already been in Japan for half a century, converting part of the country to Catholicism, and are at present busily engaged in shady import/export dealings.
But that is just for openers. Now Blackthorne - forgetting his wife and children back in green and pleasant England - falls in illicit love with the wife of an evil Japanese nobleman. Well, you can just imagine the mess! Some enchanted evening it isn't. Blood runs like sake in a Tokyo Karaoke bar.
There are sword fights and all manner of martial-artiness, and tea ceremonies, and diaphanously gowned courtesans; there are ninjas (who are not even turtles, but just hired assassins), and there is torture, and there is jollity.
And there is love. And karma. And fate. And death. And, unfortunately, music.
The score is by Paul Seiko Chihara, an academic American composer, with everything to commend him but inspiration. At its best, Chihara's score suggests Andrew Lloyd Webber (it seems no accident that it is orchestrated by Lloyd Webber's own co-orchestrator, David Cullen) and Claude-Michel ("Saigon"/"Miserables") Schonberg at their not inconsiderable worst.
After apparently innumerable repetitions, one tune may stand out, but its memory scarcely sustains the fall of the curtain. For the rest, not so much silence as fudge. Oriental fudge.
As for the book and lyrics by John Driver, of "Scrambled Feet" fame, this time it is not simply the feet that are scrambled. The book is unwieldy and the lyrics banal. Driver also confuses the erotic - which, as his director evidently understands, could have a useful place here - with childish dirty jokes about dildos and the like.
Now, not all is lost. It is amazing what a really skilled director can do with tripe - almost as much as a master chef. And what can be done for "Shogun," the director/choreographer Michael Smuin has done. He has gilded spectacle on spectacle, piled special effects on the result, and kept the whole computerized schmear moving so fast in some vain hope that you will not notice quite what you are seeing and hearing.
With a little luck perhaps you won't. At times, Smuin's efforts - much helped by Lorin Sherman's gorgeously opulent settings, Patricia Zipprodt's ornately handsome costumes and the adroit lighting of Natasha Katz - do bear wondrous fruit.
The opening shipwreck scene is beautifully staged, there is a cavalry charge to the footlights that all but brings the audience to its feet, and Smuin's vigorous dances and intelligent use of Oriental theatrical techniques maintain an interest only undercut by the material.
As the heroine - a feminist swordsperson Madame Butterfly who can wield her daisho with the best of them and practices archery (another great "special effect" devised by Smuin) with a zing to her zen - June Angela is a delight, and Francis Ruivivar has a nicely bluff presence and neat humor as the aspirant Shogun.
Philip Casnoff, as the lost Blackthorne, deserves either a purple heart, a red badge of courage or an illuminated lotus blossom for going on almost instantly after being conked on the head by recalcitrant computerized scenery - a splendid example of that showbiz dictum that the show must go on (although considering the show, possibly Noel Coward's cynical rejoinder - "Why must the show go on?" - might also be appropriate).
Anyway, Casnoff did his duty and although his voice (admittedly post-accident) had a certain vibrato bleat and his bearing lacked the authority a Colm Wilkinson might have brought to the role, he showed charm and spirit.
The rest of the cast, including particularly Jo-Ann M. Hunter as an indentured courtesan, labor valiantly to put a nip in Old Nippon, and the show, if carefully nursed for a month or so, might have a chance, especially in the present lean and mean season, with tourists anxious to see a fake shipwreck and simulated horses. Not to mention a little simulated sex.
Had the actor Philip Casnoff not been beaned by a falling slab of scenery at a press preview last week, "Shogun: The Musical" might have been best remembered as the first Broadway musical extravaganza to beguile an audience with a song about a dildo. But Mr. Casnoff's accident and his speedy recovery upstaged all else in the show -- and justly so. Mr. Casnoff is something. "Shogun," with or without sexual toys, is something else.
I was at the fateful preview in which the actor was abruptly knocked flat, bringing screams from the audience and causing the immediate suspension of the show, which delayed its opening until last night.
When I returned to the Marquis Theater a few days later to see the complete second act, I was struck not only by Mr. Casnoff's physical resilience but also by a remarkable change in his performance. Before he was injured, Mr. Casnoff, a gifted young New York actor little known outside the profession, was giving a dutiful but hardly stellar performance -- well sung, agile, bland -- in the role of John Blackthorne, the English sea captain who finds himself marooned in the civil-war-torn Japan of 1598. After his recovery, Mr. Casnoff had the swaggering self-assurance of a star in complete command of a vast production. He was enjoying himself as he had not been before, and, of course, the audience was adoring him in return.
Had the actor's brush with a possibly career-ending injury inspired him to take a gutsier stance on stage? Had all the publicity attending the incident pumped up his ego, forcing him to behave like a big deal rather than like just another unsung New York actor who happened to land a large part in a forgettable show? Whatever the explanation, Mr. Casnoff's accident, painful and terrifying as it must have been, can be seen from the vantage point of its happy ending as the biggest break of his career. And if that's not show biz, what is?
As for the rest of "Shogun: The Musical," I suspect it is best appreciated by fans of its James Clavell source, "Shogun: The Novel," or perhaps by viewers of "Shogun: The Mini-Series" or even wearers of "Shogun: The T-shirt." "Shogun" aficionados will presumably experience the stage version as a progression of recognizable tableaux inspired by a sacred text. For those unfamiliar with the Clavell tale, the musical's book, by John Driver, is mostly incomprehensible, and the synopsis in the Playbill is itself in need of synopsis. ("Ishido schemes with the three Catholic Daimyos and passes a resolution demanding that Toranaga remain as a 'guest' in Osaka Castle, thus making Toranaga a virtual prisoner," goes one typical passage.) The Playbill is also equipped with a glossary of Japanese expressions, such as "kampai," which means "bottoms up," and "seppuku," which refers to the "ritual suicide" one samurai or shogun or another is threatening to commit in every other scene.
Curiously, the glossary does not list "pillowing," which is the term "Shogun" gives its medieval Japanese characters as a synonym for copulation. It is in Mr. Driver's lyrics for the song "Pillowing" that female characters describe the joys of a portable phallus ("It never tires of women like a lazy, jaded man") with a gleeful prurience that almost makes one nostalgic for the relatively benign sexism of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song." Of the 30-odd other musical numbers composed by Paul Chihara for "Shogun," few are memorable except "Karma," this show's inevitable if ludicrous opening number, and a ballad titled "Born to Be Together" that, between its constant repetition and its orchestration by the Andrew Lloyd Webber arranger David Cullen, might as well be piped in from "Aspects of Love" around the corner.
Given its poverty in other departments, "Shogun" is the kind of show at which it is de rigueur to praise the physical production -- if only because that's where the big budget was most conspicuously spent. Patricia Zipprodt, a costume designer second to none, has indeed done beautiful work here, turning out enough kimonos and other more extravagant ceremonial robes to make the silkworm an endangered species. Loren Sherman, a witty miniaturist in his scenic assignments Off Broadway, has not made the leap to Broadway overproduction too gracefully. The black-and-gold folding screens used as a front curtain look like the sort of heavy, ersatz chinoiserie that was popular in middle-class American homes in the 1950's, and a big earthquake effect is less redolent of Kabuki or Kurosawa than of "Godzilla." The delicacy of Japanese esthetics is apparent only in a late-evening "Winter Battle" sequence, hauntingly lighted by Natasha Katz, in which warriors on silver horses advance from within a cloud of fog and snow.
By then, "Shogun" is almost three hours old, and it has not exactly flown by under the direction of Michael Smuin. A snazzy choreographer of period American dancing ("Sophisticated Ladies," "Anything Goes"), Mr. Smuin seems to have little luck with actors. June Angela, the leading lady, who pillows with Mr. Casnoff in various Kama Sutra positions near the end of Act I, has a squeaky soprano, a professional smile and scant presence. Francis Ruivivar's jolly, rotund Shogun, John Herrera's shifty-eyed priest and Joseph Foronda's monotoned villain all seem to be refugees from a Gilbert and Sullivan tour of the provinces, and not necessarily the Japanese provinces.
Mr. Smuin's choreography includes a stormy opening shipwreck sequence that, with its spangled, gyrating furies and fabric waves, looks like the Trump casino edition of Jerome Robbins's "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet from "The King and I." The post-intermission dance treat is an utterly gratuitous "Festival of the Fireflies" that is best applauded not for its Crazy Horse Saloon onslaught of scantily clad "insects" but for its temporary forestalling of Act II's turgid scenes of exposition. After that, "Shogun" may leave all except its most fiercely committed partisans longing for a pillow of the old-fashioned, G-rated kind.