SONDHEIM's Pacific Overtures wasn't too successful when it appeared on Broadway in 1976, according to one reviewer because a delicate, reflective piece was smothered by "spectacle and bombast". Well, the revival that the Donmar has mounted with Chicago's Shakespeare Theatre is set on a timber rectangle and peopled by a ten-man cast in severe black. It still left me unmoved and exasperated. Why?

Maybe because a delicate, reflective piece has been newly smothered: by silly, satiric effects that leave you wondering how so comical a country as Japan has become the daunting power that Sondheim and his librettist, John Weidman, end up nervously acknowledging.

Actually, I don't think they are at fault for the fatuities of Gary Griffin's production. Sondheim's haiku-like lyrics, which are unafraid to rhyme say with grey or tree with tea, invite a subtle, minimalist approach. His dissonant, percussive music, in which everything from cymbals to swords to knitting needles seem to clash, is more a celebration than a spool of eastern sounds. And there's nothing so wrong with the story.

Well, all right, the first half is denser than the brusque, cursory second, and there's not much sense of individual character in either.

But you get, or could get, some idea of the impact of an arrogant American invasion on an insular, hierarchical, traditionalist country where the tiniest lapse of protocol spells death for the offender. Why, they even lay down canvas to ensure that barbaric Western feet don't touch the sacred Japanese earth, and later burn it.

Kevin Gudahl and Richard Henders, prime members of a mixed British-American cast, do what they can to interest us in, respectively, the lowly samurai and the humble fisherman who are deputed by superstitious, indecisive yet menacing overlords to head off Commodore Perry and his navy. Joseph Anthony Foronda makes a coolly forceful narrator. But what's happening all around them?

Men are turning monosyllables into elongated squawks and trundling around with half-outstretched arms, as if they were riding very slow, wonky bikes. Men dressed as women are dimpling, wailing, tripping about and generally sending themselves up. Yes, Griffin's influence is obviously the single-gender Kabuki tradition; but this coarse stuff is to Kabuki what pier-end panto is to Molière or Mozart.

Naturally, the Americans and other foreigners also appear to be capering prats but, for better or worse, that's closer to Sondheim/Weidman's intentions. However, a parody Gilbert and Sullivan patter song is wretchedly unclear and a rather sweet number, involving three amorous British tars, goes for sadly little.

Burlesque rules. It shouldn't.

  Benedict Nightingale
The Times
July 1, 2003