The fluid nature of truth is at the heart of Michael John La Chiusa's musical, based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. As a student, directing an amateur production of the show in 2006 led Adam Lenson to ditch doctoring and become a director instead – and his excitement at now reviving the show professionally is evident throughout.
Act One opens with a murder in medieval Japan, which is echoed centuries later in a Central Park stabbing where a man lies dead – but with three quite separate accounts of what led to his demise, we are left to guess which, if any, might be true.
In Act Two, a renegade priest – mischievous Jonathan Butterell – has lost his faith, and sets up a fake ‘miracle', only to find his deception comes back to bite him in surprising ways.
Although the ‘what is truth' theme is central to both acts, they aren't really connected in any other meaningful way, so this feel less like a story unfolding and more like two entirely different tales being told, albeit both with gusto.
It's full of energy with an especially sparkling performance from Sarah Ingram (who was a brilliantly memorable Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd) as the Medium and Aunt Monica. Her vivacity and wry comic gifts lift every scene she is involved with, and her zippy delivery of Aunt Monica's The Greatest Practical Joke in Act Two is a highlight of the production.
Mark Goldthorp's rich, silky voice comes into its own as a CPA in Act Two. He's also entertaining as the drunken husband, led to his doom by Marc Elliott's wisecracking 1950s New York thief, who steals his wife – the elegantly poised Cassie Compton – as well as his life.
The company ensembles are rousing, and the band, led by Richard Bates, give a crisp, meticulous performance, with Elaine Booth's reeds especially striking. Yet much of the music, while complex and challenging, is not especially memorable for a first-time listener.
Simon Anthony Wells has created an intriguing set, using a series of screens to echo the Japanese roots of the musical, and his costumes – especially the swaggering Medium for Sarah Ingram – are also a pleasure.
In his programme notes, Adam Lenson suggests that this is a musical that trusts the listener to make up their own mind about the story and its ideas. He also discusses having spent long periods ‘decoding' its threads and intricacies. While this is a refined production with a talented cast, those intricacies may prove too convoluted for some.