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Takarazuka in “Chicago”

A weak, but extravagantly produced, version of the hit Broadway revival in its 20th year, just a few blocks south of Lincoln Center.

A scene from Takarazuka "Chicago" (Stephanie Berger)

A scene from Takarazuka “Chicago” (Stephanie Berger)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

One thought flitted through my mind as I entered the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center to see the all-female Takarazuka troupe essay their version of the long-running Kander-Ebb-Fosse musical, Chicago:  “Bringing coals to Newcastle.”  Why did this fabled Japanese theatrical company choose to bring not just an American musical, but one that is the exact duplicate of a current production playing just a few blocks south of Lincoln Center?

Part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2016, the Takarazuka Chicago is a carbon copy of the long-lived revival choreographed by Bob Fosse-acolyte Ann Reinking and directed by Walter Bobbie for the New York City Center Encores!  As in all carbon copies, something is lost in the reproduction.  Dance legend Gary Chryst did his best to transfer the choreography to this all-female troupe as did David Hyslop Mr. Bobbie’s direction.  Even the original, elegantly simply John Lee Beatty scenery, William Ivey Long’s chic black costumes, and Ken Billington’s extraordinary lighting have been carefully replicated.

Takarazuka is over a century old and has become a cultural mainstay in Japan.  If the cheering for individual artists at the curtain calls is any indication, some of these performers are icons.  The troupe is divided into those who play women and those who play men, unfortunately, rather unconvincingly and therein lies the main problem with this production:  frankly, it lacked the necessary testosterone to carry off the sexual politics that drives the plot.

For those who don’t know the story:  Roxie Hart, performer wannabe in Depression-era Chicago is married to a bland loser, Amos.  She has a passionate affair with Fred who promises her work, but when he tries to leave her, she shoots him with Amos, at first, taking the blame.  Soon Roxie’s case becomes a legal scandal manned by smarmy lawyer Billy Flynn.  In prison, awaiting trial, Roxie meets fellow murderess Velma who competes with her and the prison matron, Mama Morton.

Yoka Wao and cast in a scene from Takarazuka "Chicago" (Stephanie Berger)

Yoka Wao and cast in a scene from Takarazuka “Chicago” (Stephanie Berger)

There’s a sympathetic journalist, Mary Sunshine, and multiple fellow prisoners, all of whom have their say, mostly in song.  All in all, it’s a sardonic, cynical look at romance and criminal justice, that was, perhaps, too dark for audiences in 1975 when Chicago was trounced by A Chorus Line.  By 1996, when the City Center version transferred to Broadway, audiences could take this pessimistic vision with equanimity.

This Japanese version lacks the passion and darkness necessary to make this morality tale pop.  The two leading ladies, Wataru Kozuki as Velma and Hikaru Asami as Roxie looked too wide-eyed and innocent to portray such trampy characters, but they moved and sang well.  Keaki Mori as Matron “Mama” Morton, in her high, curly wig, totally missed the seamier sexual ambiguity of the character while Chihiro Isono as the put-upon Amos was a tad too low key.  Asato Shizuki was slick, but not seamy or sexually provocative as the lawyer, Billy Flynn.

After the first half hour, the novelty of seeing women play men and comparing this staging to the one at the Ambassador Theater quickly paled.

Of course, the John Kander/Fred Ebb songs and stinging libretto by Ebb and Fosse, are always a revelation of wit and acid humor.

The Takarazuka, however, followed Chicago with an encore, a Las Vegas-style revue, complete with brightly colored feathered costumes, parades through the audience and lots of fancy scenery.  It’s kitschy appeal was undeniable.

Hideo Hirata conducted the joyous on stage band with zest and energy.

Takarazuka in Chicago (July 20-24, 2016)

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org

For more information, visit http://www.takarazuka-en.senmasa.com

Running time:  two hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (229 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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