With two new productions opening on the same night, one in London’s West End and the other in Chicago, the greatest living composer of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, has got to be the hottest prospect on the musical horizon.  A super revival of “ Pacific Overtures ” is at the Donmar Warehouse, scene of some outstanding Sondheim revivals in recent years, and pre-Broadway “Bounce,” earned respectful reviews at its opening at the Goodman in Chicago, where it plays through August 10, after which it is destined for Washington, D.C. and then Broadway in the 2003-04 season.

Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse in London is a co-production with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, scene of the 2001 revival of .this brilliant Sondheim musical, a production that is both terrific theater and food for thought. Directed by Gary Griffin in Kabuki style, it relates the effect on the Japanese of the 1853 arrival at Uraga harbor by U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, with four warships.. A cast of ten men in black robes present the Japanese viewpoint of the visit, creating all the roles, including those of women.  Typically, Sondheim’s delightfully rhymed lyrics and versatile score (combining Japanese and American motifs) reflect the action, set the mood, reveal character, and carry the story along.

The opening number by the Reciter (Joseph Anthony Foronda) creates a Japan at peace for hundreds of years, as he sings of “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.” Using the stereotypical view of old Japan as a land of rice and sliding screens, Sondheim’s lyrics give a deeper slant:

Beyond the screens
That glide aside
Are further screens
That open wide
With scenes of screens like the ones that glide.

The rice is raised by the farmer, blessed by the priest, bought by the merchant, sold to the lord, protected by  his sword which was made by the craftsman, who buys at “ twice the former price…The rice.”

Perry’s warships are viewed by the local inhabitants as “Four Black Dragons,” but wisely, quoting from haiku verse, they decide “There is No Other Way” but to accept the letter Perry brings.  Written by the President, it is a “pacific overture” asking for better treatment of American whaling crews storm-driven into Japanese ports.  It also suggests trade between the two nations. In a year the fleet will return for an answer.  Samurai Kayama (Kevin Gudahl) is made a police chief to negotiate with the Americans, taking with him friend and fisherman Manjiro (Richard Henders), who has been to America.  A Rashomon -like, perceptive number, “Someone in a Tree,” weaves together differing reports -- by the Reciter, a young and an old man, and a warrior -- of what they have seen and heard of the arriving Americans.

In keeping with the minimalist staging, with additional touches to a costume designating a change of character, the men with flowers and mincing gait become geisha girls, led by a madam and singing “Welcome to Kanagawa,” promising the newcomers a variety of pleasures. A Noh mask (growing larger in successive scenes) on puppet sticks depicts the emperor, receiving reports of the arriving “barbarians,” while the Shogun lies ill.  “Chrysanthemum Tea” is a delightfully cynical roundel, the Shogun surrounded by his nagging mother, one-note wife, soothsayer, priests, and a doctor – each with his or her own agenda.  It ends with his death from drinking the tea, lovingly administered by his mother:

When the Shogun is weak
Then the tea must be strong.

Given the circumstances of history and the melodic, peaceful song with which the work opens, it is inevitable that the action will grow darker in the second half.  But it begins with the comic “Please, Hello,” in which successive admirals from America, Britain, Holland and France surround the Reciter, promising to introduce to his country their “improvements,” like Dutch tulips and French champagne. No present-day composer comes close to Sondheim in parodying musical styles, and the humor of the lyrics matches the styles of the emissaries’ songs, Sousa for the American, Gilbert and Sullivan for the British (with lyrics as good as Gilbert’s), Tchaikovsky for the Russian and Offenbach for a hilarious song and dance by Jerome Pradon as the Frenchman.

Friends Kayama and Manjiro have grown apart, the former rising in station and adopting Western ways and dress, the latter joining the staunch dissenters, who cling to tradition.  When they meet in Samurai combat, Kayama kills Manjiro.  The last two numbers are contrasts in style, although both comment bitterly on the effects of Westernization on Japan.  The first, “Pretty Lady,” is a melodic waltz, at odds with the action: three sailors, believing an innocent young girl can be bought for money, at first woo her and then attack.  The powerful and ironic finale, “Next,” brings us up to date: the Japanese have learned the “barbarians’” ways and the students will improve on their teachers – not only with cars and watches – but also warfare.  As the haiku says,

The practical bird,
Having no tree of its own,
Borrows another’s.

The ten-man cast is excellent, including seven English actors plus three from the original production: Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Reciter, carrying the narration throughout as he sings and acts in the scenes he introduces; Kevin Gudahl as Kayama, changing from a devout Samurai as he rises through the ranks, to become completely Westernized (beginning with a bowler hat); and Richard Manera, whose thirteen roles include one of the sailor trio and an impressive lion dance. The band of four, led by Mark Warman, make an important contribution as they perform on a variety of instruments, from celeste and synthesizer to glass chimes and gongs.  The original book by John Weidman now contains additions by Hugh Wheeler.  Through September 6. 

( Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Lonfon EV2H 9LX, phone 020-7369 1732; online booking: . )
July 03