A glimpse of golden Sondheim


(London, England) IF Stephen Sondheim hadn't written musicals, he could have become a mathematician - a mindset that certainly seems partially reflected in this fiercely geometric, minimalist staging of Pacific Overtures. Yet while this ironic history of modern Japan demonstrates the stylistic experimentation, cerebral slickness and wit that animates Sondheim's vast and varied oeuvre, in essence it is as lifeless as a beautiful traditional Japanese puppet.

This is not to deny moments both of aching beauty and of great tongue-incheek fun: but in a largely kabuki-style theatrical journey from American Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to open up Japan for trade, via 9/11, and right up to the present day, the highlights could be summed up in a haiku.

Sondheim is accustomed to barbed accusations of pretentiousness and lack of feeling - barbs that generally fail to penetrate the provocative complexity and subtle sentiment of his works - but in this case, the Donmar, in conjunction with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, seems to have favoured a piece which, for all its snipes at American imperialism, carries little contemporary interest.

When Pacific Overtures opened on Broadway in 1976, it won Tony Awards for Best Costume Design and Best Scenic Design, so it is notable that director Gary Griffin has decided against the often elaborate scenery and clothing of kabuki theatre to present his cast in simple minimalist black tunics on a raised square stage. Visually, this works - from kabuki's 17th century origins, men play all male and female roles - and here, simple props, such as flowers or basic uniforms, effectively decorate, for instance, the authoritative posturings of Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Emperor or Shogun, or the knowing innocence of Mo Zainal as a doting wife or a blushing young girl.

The strong - but often confusingly doubled-up - cast helps this updated production bloom for such songs as the tit-for-tat haiku contest, where the appeal of the Prefect of Police's Japanese marriage is compared to the seductive powers of American, or the explosive incident when three British sailors mistakenly and fatally approach a young girl as a geisha. Such instants when Sondheim shines through at his best are truly golden: compensation for the political and emotional thin gruel.

Sondheim's established impact on the British stage has notably been celebrated this month by Cameron Mackintosh's announcement that he is building a new Sondheim theatre. Its impending permanence contrasts ironically with this production, which seems as frustratingly evanescent as silhouettes glimpsed fleetingly through a Japanese sceen.

  Rachel Halliburton
The Evening Standard