Do not for a minute let language be a barrier to joy. The New National Theatre, Tokyo's, enthralling "Pacific Overtures" is the most moving and accessible production you're likely to encounter of Stephen Sondheim's worldly musical take on the corrosive effects of imperialism.

True, it's performed entirely in Japanese: How the translators have managed to reinterpret Sondheim's obsessively urbane lyrics is probably a dramatic tale unto itself. And though surtitles are provided, being on knowledgeable terms with the score and the book, by John Weidman, is certainly an advantage.

Yet the marvels on view all this week in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater are only tangentially related to the spoken word. The excitement is in how it's articulated, in how fully this company has committed to the task of adding vibrant levels of feeling to a show that often seems to favor polemical concerns over human ones.

The tendency in the past with this underappreciated musical, which made its debut on Broadway in 1976 under Harold Prince's direction, was to exaggerate its proportions, to offer it on a broad canvas, as a cerebral commentary on superpower politics. The popular notion has been to employ the techniques of stylized Kabuki theater to tell the story -- in many productions all-male casts have offered garish caricatures -- and this has left the impression that the musical is Brechtian agitprop (an idea reinforced by a harsh finale that seeks to stick a thumb in the eye of Western theatergoers).

The director of this production, Amon Miyamoto, offers a stripped-down model. Instead of Kabuki, he turns to the more restrained techniques of Noh theater, and what emerges is a story with more depth, more to tell us about what animates Weidman's characters. "Pacific Overtures" is still a cautionary parable, but it's a subtler one that speaks as much now to the devastation that widespread cultural upheaval wreaks on individuals as on nations.

The promising indications come early. One by one, the members of the company, all in modern dress, take their places on Rumi Matsui's deceptively simple set of sliding panels and hidden rooms. Soon the music swells for the opening number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," a kind of musical examination of the rigorous orderliness and isolation of the island's culture.

Suddenly we are transported to the feudal Japan of the mid-19th century. On and off the actors rush, now wearing the traditional costumes of samurai and monks, shoguns and merchants. Painted screens materialize; golden fans are brandished. It's a beautifully choreographed snapshot of a moment in history, a moment, of course, that is about to be obliterated.

The events of "Pacific Overtures" are triggered by the U.S. military expedition, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, that forced Japan to open its society (and markets) to the West. Taking a wildly cynical view of ugly Americanism, Sondheim and Weidman are siding squarely with the overwhelmed Japanese. But seen through the filter of New York writers purporting to tell a story from the Japanese perspective, "Pacific Overtures" has always seemed a little untrustworthy.

Miyamoto's achievement is to eliminate evidence of the filter; the actors make "Pacific Overtures" entirely their own. And his compassionate approach yields textures the musical never exhibited before. In an early scene, for example, between Kayama (Shuji Honda), a lowly provincial official whose stock rises as the Western threat grows, and his docile wife, Tamate (Shunpo), the strains of the social changes to come are touchingly foreshadowed. Shunpo gives new weight to Tamate's silent suffering, rendered in the evocative movement embroidering the wrenching ballad "There Is No Other Way." Hers is the face of shattered serenity.

It's clear all through this "Pacific Overtures" that the designers and actors get a special pleasure conjuring (and making fun of) the Byzantine pecking order of Japanese society. The scenes in the emperor's court and the shogun's house are splendidly satirical, the topper being the hilariously staged "Chrysanthemum Tea," in which a do-nothing shogun is slowly poisoned by his disapproving mom. And Miyamoto gets maximum mileage, too, from "Please Hello," the bravura musical sendup of the strong-arm tactics practiced by the supposedly cultured Europeans and Americans who come bearing smiles and warships. (Atsushi Haruta is a giddy show unto himself as the French admiral, right down to the blowing of those little kisses.)

Most of the voices are very good; in fact, the rousing "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim's tribute to the ordinary people who witness history, has rarely sounded better. The actors, by and large, are superb, chief among them Takeharu Kunimoto as the Reciter, the evening's major-domo. Honda provides a chilling accounting of a man slowly abandoning his traditions in favor of the invaders', while the charismatic Masaki Kosuzu is excellent as his opposite, a Westernized fisherman who takes up the samurai's sword.

Who knew our most sophisticated theater composer would find such seminal treatment in such unlikely hands? Miyamoto and company have helped the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration pull off that most difficult of theater tricks, a surprise ending.

Pacific Overtures, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Amon Miyamoto. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Sunday. Call 202-467-4600.

Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures," now at the Kennedy Center, gains new resonance in the hands of the New National Theatre, Tokyo.