WASHINGTON — Japan in 1600 -- when "Shogun, The Musical" takes place -- must have seemed exotic to Westerners. But this new musical looks remarkably familiar. In large part, it looks like a Japanese "Les Miserables."
Where "Les Mis" used a central turntable as a scenic device, "Shogun" uses a conveyor belt. And near the end of the first act, when the ensemble marches in a wedge formation with red flags flying, "Shogun" -- currently playing a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center -- looks like a kimono-clad version of "Red and Black," the crowd-rallying number in "Les Mis."
"Les Mis," of course, is a proven audience pleaser, and this impressively sleek and clear distillation of James Clavell's voluminous historical novel, adapted by librettist John Driver, has plenty of audience-pleasing moments. But how much more exciting "Shogun" might have been if it had gone for the exotic and original, instead of the derivative.
The primary clue that the show is veering toward the tried-and-true comes early on when one of the most intriguing themes falls by the wayside. Mr. Clavell's rip-roaring saga of a shipwrecked British mariner who falls in love with a Japanese woman is fertile territory for exploring cultural common ground. That exploration is hinted at in the love duet, "Impossible Eyes." Then it is dropped.
West doesn't merely meet East in this show, it takes command as surely as a conquering nation. Composer Paul Chihara's score and David Cullen's orchestrations are pure rock musical. In fact, the catchiest tune, "Born to Be Together," is strongly reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "All I Ask of You," from "Phantom of the Opera."
Instead, the Oriental aspects are limited to Patricia Zipprodt's costumes, Loren Sherman's scenery and various elements of traditional Japanese theater -- from Noh and Kabuki to Bunraku puppetry -- which director Michael Smuin incorporates into the staging. And all of these are magnificent.
The special-effects shipwreck and earthquake can't compare to the magic of seeing a Samurai army gallop forward on horses that are actually sheathes of fabric and wire.
Several performances equal the majesty of these moments. June Angela's intense, stirringly sung portrayal of Mariko, the Englishman's Japanese love, is a star-making turn. In contrast, co-star Peter Karrie is mediocre as Blackthorne, the mariner. But Francis Ruivivar is thoroughly majestic as their fair-minded regent. And the ensemble, particularly the dancers, is splendid. It's refreshing to see so much dance in a new musical -- would that Mr. Smuin's choreography displayed more Eastern touches, instead of relying on European ballet.
Presumably, the brouhaha over the casting of "Miss Saigon" has raised consciousness about the portrayal of Asians on stage. But "Shogun" falls prey to a more subtle problem. Instead of rising to the challenge of presenting a truly cross-cultural spectacle, "Shogun" allows the mysterious East to be overtaken by the all-too-recognizable West.