Takarazuka: Chicago

Takarazuka: Chicago

7/11/16 (Mon), Yokohama

Takarazuka versions of Broadway musicals are always entertaining in their inimitable way, including rewritten scripts, reshuffled songs and superstar treatment for the main male character, regardless of his/her co-stars or the needs of the story. Chicago was a strange choice since its two leads are female – it’s just not as interesting when women are playing women, especially at the usual talent level of Takarazuka players. The lawyer Billy is a more typical macho lead (and gets top billing in the ads), but he only gets two songs of his own and no romantic bits whatsoever. So for the most part we’re going to be watching the girls do the heavy lifting in a cynical show that doesn’t fit the Japanese psyche at all, or even the language for that matter. And what do they do with Mary Sunshine? I was curious as to how they were going to rework this to suit their unique needs and figured they must have something up their sleeves. This show featured a reunion of veteran performers who have largely retired from the troupe, with former male-role stars playing the three main roles in a triple-cast rotation. That makes it a big deal for fans. Moreover, the production is going from Yokohama to Lincoln Center, where it will play simultaneously with the long-running Broadway version just a few blocks away. So it’s a real event.

It turned out surprisingly to be pretty much a carbon copy of the Broadway production. I’m not sure that was a wise move. They’re opening themselves up to comparison with the New York cast without the usual compensating factor of high camp. I had fully expected Billy to open the show with “All That Jazz” and was surprised to see Velma (Kozuki Wataru) doing the usual routine, signaling that this was not Takarazuka as such but simply Takarazuka actresses in a musical. It was clear from Velma’s first shaky notes that we were not on Broadway, and while Velma had all the right Fosse moves, there was nothing that would have distinguished her from the chorus. That applies to Roxie (Asami Hikaru) as well: they sang and danced as directed and were competent enough, but failed to bring anything distinctive to their roles. So the question is: what’s the point? The production would have benefited from real singer-dancers in those parts if they’re going to play it straight. None of the other women were much of an improvement, including a by-the-book Mama Morton (Hatsukaze Jun) and the prisoners, who all seemed to have the same voice and accent.

Billy (Shizuki Asato), in contrast, was exactly what was needed with that fake deep voice and contrived acting style. He reminded me of why we were there, and I would have welcomed more of that. The lack of strong male characters in the musical itself was a structural drawback in that sense. The “gentlemen” dancers were a big plus, but they were a faceless mass that simply provided a nice background, not like the horny sailors who made “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” so memorable (if that’s the word) in the Takarazuka South Pacific. The whole fun is seeing the women play the male roles, so the gap here was telling. They seemed to have scaled back some of the raunchiness, which may have been an opportunity missed. That said, the dancing by both the men and women was itself very fine.

The translation was problematic, and not just the songs. It’s hard enough to convey sarcasm in Japanese, and straight translations don’t always do the trick, such as the number by the prisoners (my favorite joke, the he-saw-himself-as-alive line, was dead on arrival). Surely they could have played around with these and other lines as needed, including drastic rewrites if necessary to get the meaning across. In “Class”, they sing, “品がないわよ”, rather ladylike phrasing – shouldn’t that have been “品がねえんだよ” or something similarly crude? Part of the problem may have been the delivery, since few of the actors had an original take on the material or spoke the lines as if they meant them. But the material definitely could have used some tweaking. Given how faithful the production is to the original, I wonder if the problem was a rights issue or simply an improper understanding of the underlying irony. That won’t be an issue in overseas performances, but it was grating.

For all that, the show wasn’t an outright disaster, and if the singing is best left unmentioned, at least the dancing and staging were competently (there’s that word again) reproduced. But this is not the Takarazuka that we’re here to see. Too bad New York can’t see their Guys & Dolls or South Pacific, not to mention Takarazuka originals like Gone With the Wind or Rose of Versailles. That would be worth the trip.

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