'Shogun, The Musical' is big and spectacular, but it's too familiar


September 11, 1990|By Lou Cedrone

''Shogun, The Musical'' wants to be everything. It wants to be ''Phantom of the Opera,'' ''Cats'' and ''Les Miserables'' and it wants to be bigger than all those shows.

In some ways, it is. In some, it is not. At present, this self-consciously spectacular musical, filling a pre-Broadway engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, needs prodigious tuning. When it first previewed at the Kennedy, the show was three hours and 20 minutes long. At present, it is three hours long.

James Clavell, who wrote the two-volume novel in 1976 and is co-producing the musical, says they want to get it down to two hours and 40 minutes. That shouldn't be difficult. All they have to do is cut some of the battle scenes. That would easily bring the running time down to the standard length.

But ''Shogun'' needs more than trimming. It could also use a more distinctive score. It was done by John Driver (lyrics) and Paul Chihara (the music) and is openly and unabashedly imitative of ''Les Miserables.'' It is also openly imitative of Andrew Lloyd Webber, particularly his ''Phantom.''

The prettiest number in ''Shogun'' is ''Born to Be Together,'' which sounds remarkably like ''All I Ask of You'' from ''Phantom.'' It's a lovely tune, but it is more than just derivative.

''Shogun,'' like most of the new ''big'' musicals, includes some dazzling special effects, some of which are fresh, one of which is stunning. At other times, however, they are too suggestive of ''Cats,'' ''Phantom'' and ''Aspects of Love,'' the latest Webber opera to open on Broadway.

In a way, it is fun to look for comparisons. In the beginning, the ceiling of the Opera House crackles with lightning as the ship, carrying the English mariner to Japan, founders.

The ''ocean'' is impressively managed (with billowing material), but a subsequent scene, one that takes place on water, looks like the ''Uncle Tom'' number from ''The King and I.'' The score also includes a musical number that sounds as though it was taken from the same musical.

That, you may say, is all right. Theater can be at its best when it imitates, but there is almost too much of this here. You feel, sometimes, as though you are looking at a tribute to the English-American musical.

The performers are strong. Peter Karrie is the Englishman who visits Japan where he becomes involved in wars between the Diamos, who rule the area but do not make the laws. The shogun does that, and right now, two diamos are vying for that title.

There are countless battles between them, and while these are brightly choreographed, they go on far too long.

The score, save for the number that mimics ''The Phantom,'' is close to Eastern in the first act. As the act comes to a close, however, the music becomes more Western. It also begins to sound much better.

The plot, however, goes to pieces in the second act, partly because the action is so furious and the words are all sung, not always clearly enough.

That, however, is not the real problem with this show, because the basics are easy enough to grasp. All we have to know is that the Westerner falls in love with a married Japanese woman, becomes involved in the diamo wars and, in the end, may or may not stay in Japan. The real problems with this opera are its length and its close resemblance to too many other shows.

Karrie, who has done both ''Les Mis'' and ''Phantom'' in England, sings well, even when he is required to sound like Javert of ''Les Mis,'' over and over again.

June Angela, who plays the married Mariko, is lovely, and so is her voice. Francis Ruivivar is Lord Torango, who is battling with Lord Ishido for the position of shogun. Ruivivar won a big deserved hand at the official opening of the musical.

''Shogun, the Musical'' has its virtues. Some of its bigness is original. Some of the score is pleasant. The show will remain at the Kennedy through Oct. 6 then head for New York where it will open Nov. 15. That gives the producers a lot of time to make needed change.

''Shogun, the Musical''

** Musical version of the James Clavell novel about an Englishman who visits Japan in 1600 and becomes involved in a war between rival factions.

CAST: Peter Karrie, Francis Ruivivar, John Herrera, Joseph Foronda, June Angela

DIRECTOR: Michael Smuin

RUNNING TIME: Three hours with one intermission

TICKETS: (202) 467-4600

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