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.
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