Stephen Sondheim's 1976 East-meets-West musical has its creator's typically dark comical touch. And, in this new co-production between the Donmar and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, it's brought to mesmerising life by an all-male cast of Yanks and Brits, led by the excellent Joseph Anthony Foronda's narrator. It is not, however, without problems.
Performed in the round (almost) on Daniel Ostling's touch-of-the-Orient timber stage, Pacific Overtures traces the opening up of the ancient Kingdom of Nippon to Western trade after 250 years of cultural isolation. The event that sparked the country's emergence into its present-day commercial behemoth, according to book writer John Weidman (additional material care of Hugh Wheeler), was the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy. In 1853, Perry and his four ships turned up in Uraga harbour preaching a message of peace - reinforced with the threat that, if unwelcoming, the Japanese would soon be staring down the barrels of his cannons.
The resulting kafuffle - under the Japanese law of the day, no foreigner could set foot on the nation's sacred soil - sets up a story of culture clashes, breaches of etiquette, diplomatic shenanigans, murder and suicide. All good stuff for a Sondheim musical and, as a "Dummy's Guide to Japanese History", it works rather well.
The argument appears to be that we, the West, had it coming. By kicking down the door of Japan's closed society and shovelling commerce, treaties and fast food down their throats, we invited the consequent comeback. Neatly side-stepping World War II, the focus remains on Japan's rise to economic dominance (albeit less so now than when the show premiered).
Unfortunately, the characterisations are largely stereotyped. Both the timid Japanese, crushed by tradition, and the stomping, spitting, American visitors are unsatisfyingly one-dimensional. This shortcoming falls partly to director Gary Griffin, who's enforces the highly stylised, traditional Kabuki form of acting. But the writing isn't blameless either; the Japanese who, in the epilogue, open up car dealerships in Detroit are not obviously carved from the characters we've watched develop over two-and-a-half hours.
What elevates Pacific Overtures is Sondheim's songs and the performances which - but for the odd fluffed line and one or two flat notes - are excellent. For comedy value, "Chrysanthemum Tea", delivered by a hilarious Jerome Pradon as the mother of an ineffectual Shogun, and the pastiche (spot the Gilbert & Sullivan) "Please Hello" are the pick of the bunch. The more pensive "A Bowler Hat", which heralds the island's creeping Americanisation and is sung by an equally superb Kevin Gudahl, moves in more profound ways.
It may fail to achieve all that it sets out to, but this Pacific Overtures is a welcome addition to the Donmar's long line of Sondheim revivals. Funny, lyrically unrivalled (as always) and still highly thought-provoking.