music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim book by John Weidman additional Material by Hugh Wheeler.
Union Theatre 204 Union Street SE1 0LX To 2 August 2014.
Tue–Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & Sun 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 20min One interval.
TICKETS: 0207 261 9876.
Review: William Russell, 4 July.
Nip to Nippon – if you can.
Michael Strassen’s elegantly staged production of this 1976 Broadway musical is well worth catching; that is if the Sondheim devotees leave any seats for newcomers to his work.
It tells how in 1853 the Americans led by Commander Matthew Perry sailed to Japan, then a forbidden land to outsiders, and gatecrashed it, hotly pursued by the rest of the West, equally intent on getting into this potentially lucrative new market. The first half deals with the impact of the American intruders, the second with how the rest of the world behaved and how the Japanese turned the tables. Strassen has slightly updated the ending – technologies have changed since 1976, the Japanese economic miracle is not quite so dominant a force in the world and World War Two seems never to have happened.
But Sondheim’s score is a joy, his lyrics – when you can hear them, some diction needs improving – as witty and perceptive as any he has written. It also looks superb, but some of the Act One comedy does not come across and it took until the Madame and her girls welcomed the Americans to Kanagawa for the laughs to start.
In Act Two Sondheim’s glorious melange of Offenbach, Sullivan and Sousa as Westerners surge in suffers badly from inadequate projection. Ken Christiansen dominates as the narrator, a source of rueful haikus, Ian Mowatt is very funny as Madam – no Butterfly he – and there are good performances from Alexander McMorran as the wily Shogun, Oli Reynolds as the fall guy the authorities select to do their dirty work, and Emanuel Alba as a fisherman who knows a thing or two about Yankees. The dance numbers are athletic, the orchestra under Richard Bates does justice to a fiendish score, and while nobody looks very Japanese it doesn’t much matter.
The message about interfering America intent on imposing its values on others remains as potent as ever.
Reciter: Ken Christiansen.
Kayama: Oli Reynolds.
Manjiro/Dutch Admiral: Emanuel Alba.
Lord Abe: Alexander McMorran.
1st Observer/American Officer/Shoguns’s Wife/Geisha/American Admiral/1st Sailor: Joel Harper-Jackson.
American Officer/Shogun’s Mother/ French Admiral/Story Teller: Marc Lee Joseph.
Councillor/2nd Observer/Madam/Old Man/British Admiral: Ian Mowatt.
Councillor/Thief/Soothsayer/Warrior/Russian Admiral/3rd Sailor: Lee Van Geleen.
Fisherman/Physician/Geisha/Young Boy: Matt Jolly.
Tamate: Anthony Selwyn.
Commodore Perry & dance captain: Marios Nicolaides.
Priest/Geisha/2nd Sailor: Joel Baylis.
Priest/Geisha & dance captain: Josh Andrews.
Director: Michael Strassen.
Designer: Jean Gray.
Lighting: Tim Deiling.
Musical Director: Richard Bates.