Pacific Overtures is one of Stephen Sondheim's most intriguing and tantalising works, demonstrating an overlap of Oriental and American cultures starting with Commodore Perry's battleships ("Four Black Dragons") entering Japanese waters to open up trade in 1833.
The 1976 musical – really a play by John Weidman, with twelve exquisite songs by Sondheim – has been seen at the ENO and the Donmar, the first version (in 1987) with the full operatic works, and Japanese instruments, the second (in 2003) with ten black-garbed performers from Chicago.
Michael Strassen's Union production is an all-male, white face kabuki affair, dressed in a slinky Pierrot garb of white muslin with colonial and militaristic additions, the presiding narrator, or reciter (Ken Christiansen) a manipulative genie conceived in the faux-transvestite style of Lindsay Kemp.
And appropriately for a score that makes brilliant pastiche (as good as the originals) of both Gilbert and Sullivan, whom Sondheim doesn't much like, and Leonard Bernstein's Candide, which he reveres, the music stings with as sharp a stiletto as the haiku lyrics.
After the invasion, over a subsequent period of fifteen years, there are Samurai revolts under the Shogun, an emperor enthroned and the industrial miracle hailed on the axis of a relationship between a warrior ordering the ships to leave and a Japanese fisherman recently returned for America.
"It's a piece that especially rewards the intimate, scaled-down approach"
In truth, the details of the plot, and indeed the characters, are difficult to isolate except in a close listen to the lyrics, which are consistently beautiful. Strassen's point, perhaps, is that the company, quick-changing roles, is an organic extension of the reciter's function; this is a silk-screen of a drama, not its full embodiment.
Hal Prince's original Broadway cast was all-Oriental. This would have added ironic salt to the cultural invasion in songs like "Chrysanthemum Tea" (in which the Shogun is politely poisoned by his mother) and "Pretty Lady" (British sailors accosting a geisha – "I sailed the world for you").
But there are fine performances here, notably from Oli Reynolds as the chief Samurai, Ian Mowat as an Old Madam and a British Admiral (not necessarily the same thing), Emanuel Alba as Manjiro the fisherman, Marc Lee Joseph as the Shogun's mother (hat like a flower pot, nose like a hawk's), and Matt Jolly and Joel Harper-Jackson prominent in the ensemble.
It's a piece that especially rewards the intimate, scaled-down approach, and the conviction behind it carries through in Jean Gray's design, Tim Deiling's lighting and Richard Bates' musical direction at keyboards, plus percussion, clarinet and cello, a skilful reduction of an already minimalist musical.
Pacific Overtures runs at the Union Theatre until 2 August 2014