Michael Coveney at last night's first night.

Pacific Overtures,
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman: Donmar Warehouse

STEPHEN SONDHEIM, the greatest contemporary American musical theatre writer, has rewritten the rules partly by taking us into difficult highways and byways, and always by calling his own tune.

Pacific Overtures was a succes d'estime ( that's a success that runs out of steam) in the mid-1970s and was presented, disastrously, here at the English National Opera in 1987. But the score, which mingles the Orient with Broadway in a history of Japan from the American intervention of Commodore Perry in 1853 to the present day, is one of Sondheim's most exquisite works.

Gary Griffin's Donmar revival is co-produced with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and is strikingly performed by ten men in black Japanese garb. The pick of the bunch is Teddy Kempner as a very Jewish, Japanese madame in a brothel. A small band, led by Mark Warman, pings out Sondheim's minimalist, tantalising music on keyboards, percussion and woodwind. The atmosphere is satirical of Oriental sound, striving for a similar purity while allowing the odd hot flush of Western melody and harmonics to creep in.

Nippon, a remote floating island, is approached at first by the four black dragons of Perry's fleet, then gently subsumed in Western values by economic, and musical, interaction. Told entirely from the Japanese point of view, the friendship of a Samurai warrior and humble fisherman is streched by the invasion and finally torn apart.

Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Emperor declares that Japan will now do for Asia what America has done for Japan. That is, go forth an multiplex with millionnaire superstores.

Using abrasive and poetic lyrics, Sondheim paints pictures in song. He even recounts the history of trading in Japan with reference to Gilbert and Sullivan, Sousa and Offenbach.

It is a brilliant, rarefied experience that makes musical theatre almost (unfortunately) respectable.

  Michael Coveney
The Daily Mail