July 1853. Japan has been closed to foreign influence for 250 years, and has stagnated into a tense feudal society of rigid rituals.

When Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy appears in Uraga harbour, demanding passage and navigation rights for American vessels, Japan is thrown into a panic.

Stephen Sondheim show what happens next in a series of vignettes, all from different perspectives. The quality is varied - there is an amusing number in which the geishas prepare to do business, for example, and America, Britain and France make their demands in hilarious musical parodies of Sousa, Gilbert & Sullivan and Piaf. But a scene about mistaken memories adds nothing to the theme, and there is a fairy-tale recitation that is too long.

Gary Griffin's production uses Kabuki elements - an all-male cast in black robes, a very spare set, wild vocal exaggerations and stylised theatrical rituals - to tell the story. But because the rituals are slow, and stylised is sometimes camp, there are some problems. The cast is mostly excellent and Mark Warman's music direction, which mixes sounds of the East and West, is absolutely spot on.

  Warwick Thompson
2 July, 2003