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Takarazuka Chicago at Lincoln Center Festival: All-Female Kander and Ebb Musical in Japanese

The all-female Japanese theater company that is putting on Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” as part of the Lincoln Center Festival through Sunday, was founded in 1913 in Takarazuka, Japan by the president of a Japanese railroad to increase tourism to the city. The Western-style musical theater they present has become more popular in Japan than Kabuki, Noh, or Bunraku, but arguably demands theatrical training that is just as rigorous.
I’ve been eager to see the Takarazuka Revue since I saw a play about them at Clubbed Thumb entitled “Takarazuka!” by Susan Soon He Stanton, who admitted becoming “obsessed with the lurid, surreal, and oddly compelling performances.”

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Not long into the performance at Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater, I started asking myself: Why am I seeing this “Chicago”? Just two subway stops away, the same musical has been playing nightly since 1996. The slinky black costumes in both are designed by William Ivey Long, the lighting for both is designed by Ken Billington, the scenic design for both is by John Lee Beatty, and the rest of the credits — i.e. “Recreation of Original Production Choreography by Gary Chryst’ — make it clear that this is not a new interpretation; it’s an exact copy. Yes, this one is in Japanese (with English supertitles.) But given the, um, creative  casting of the Broadway production — which recently proclaimed itself history-making because two of its current stars,Jaime Camil and Bianca Marroquin, were born in Mexican — it doesn’t seem much of a leap to envision an all-Japanese Broadway cast someday in the future.

Two things must be said:

  1. Given that it’s a copy, it’s a professional one, with a cast of winning performers. Maybe the women playing the men’s parts wouldn’t pass for male at a truck stop, but they certainly sounded like men, and they were  better impersonators than the women you generally see disguising themselves as men in Shakespeare. (Of particular note was the suave performance of Saori Mine as Billy Flynn.) But “Chicago” is a showcase for the women characters. This may have made it an odd choice to be the only export by the Takarazuka Revue to the Lincoln Center Festival, but Yoka Wao and Hikaru Asami were undeniably delicious as the sexy, amoral murderers Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart.
  2. “Chicago” ended after about two and a half hours (which is, unsurprisingly, the same running time as the Broadway production.) But then the three leads — Mine, Wao and Asami — came out before the curtain and explained that after every musical put on by a Takarazuka troupe, they add an “Encore” spectacle. And so, out came the disco balls projecting criss-crossing bright white lights as if in a Hollywood premiere, leading to a synchronized chorus line of frilly taffeta-clothed dancing girls a la the Radio City Rockettes — the first number in a half hour’s worth of eclectic razzmatazz, complete with sparkling tuxes and huge white feathers, an exercise somewhere between tacky and classy, between Busby Berkeley nostalgia and a hallucinogenic trip through some alternate universe — and itself worth the price of admission.

Takarazuka’s Chicago runs on stage at Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater through Sunday, July 24. Tickets run from $35 to $110.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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