Small is not only beautiful. It is invariably better for Stephen Sondheim musicals. And the joy of Gary Griffin's production, hailing from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and using 10 actors and four musicians, is that it allows us to savour every word and register every dramatic nuance in a way that is impossible in glitzier revivals.

Seeing this 1976 show again, one is struck by the topicality not just of Sondheim's lyrics but of John Weidman's book. It deals, after all, with Commander Perry's use of military force to persuade Japan to open up trade relations in 1853.

At a time of resurgent American imperialism it is fascinating to hear Perry referring to "these backward-seeming, semi-barbarous peoples." It also comes as a shock to be reminded that the British, French and Russians who leapt on the American bandwagon were met with fierce guerrilla resistance by samurai warriors.

In short, this is a nakedly political musical. But the genius of Sondheim's music and lyrics is the way they move from Oriental minimalism to multinational pastiche as Japan gradually becomes more westernised.

In the achingly beautiful first half we listen entranced as a samurai and a fisherman exchange haikus as they travel. And in Someone in a Tree we see how history is made up of fragmentary moments and multiple perspectives.

But by the second half, as the invading admirals arrive, Sondheim precisely parodies Sousa, Sullivan and Offenbach to pinpoint cultural invasion.

You could argue that the second act over-compresses 20th-century history and that the final point about Japan's economic revenge is less true than it was. But this is still a great musical that satirises America's historical determination to impose its own values on other civilisations. Griffin's production, played on a rectangular pinewood stage, embraces the austerity of noh as much as the colour of kabuki and is quite outstandingly acted by its all-male cast.

Joseph Anthony Foronda's Reciter not only holds the show together but views the unfolding history with wry, cool omniscience. Jerome Pradon is wonderfully poisonous as the Shogun's mother in Chrysanthemum Tea. And in the great song about history seen from a tree Togo Igawa and Mo Zainal touchingly represent the polarities of youth and age.

  Michael Billington
Tuesday July 1, 2003
The Guardian