Stephen Sondheim's " Pacific Overtures " has been a grand opera, a tiny chamber studio play with songs, and a huge glitzy Broadway musical but I doubt if even a village amateur director would conceive of it as a parody-pantomime.

In a co-production between the Donmar and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Gary Griffin has imposed a mockery of Kabuki conventions. Thus, he employs an all-male multiracial cast but has them send up the characters, especially the women. No visual cliché is left unexplored, although the actors (disparate looking and sounding though they are) turn in uniformly strong performances.

Griffin's emphasis is not on the differences between the Japanese people and history and those of the Americans, but on their absurdities. It is as though he envisages Kabuki, not as it is, but as it might be seen through the eyes of a non-Japanese audience, a jumble of shrieks, shouts, incomprehensible rituals and weird stock characters. When you have to get cheap laughs by mispronouncing the names of Japanese towns you've rather missed the point of Sondheim's exquisitely delicate score, which becomes increasingly less Japanese as the evening duly progresses.

"Pacific Overtures " is not only about the Japanese slowly and willingly allowing themselves to be invaded by the West, but also the eternal conflict between the big picture and the details. With the precision of a camera enthusiast changing lenses, Sondheim and his collaborators, John Weidman and Hugh Wheeler, switch focus, now concentrating on a single young woman in a park, now on world economic history. What is happening here is that a director is trying to make his name by turning a gentle satire into a circus with a broad humor that betrays the subtlety of the thought behind it.

  Sheridan Morley
Wednesday, July 9, 2003