The women are gorgeous and the men … Well, the men are women—and every bit as stunning to look at—in Takarazuka, the all-female Japanese musical revue that is the setting for Susan Soon He Stanton’s fascinating new behind-the-scenes play-with-music Takarazuka!!!, now getting its West Coast Premiere at East West Players.
Takarzuka!!! transports us back forty years in time to the impending retirement of the century-old company’s Number One Star Yuko Mikage (Fiona Cheung), every bit the idol to Japanese teen girls that Justin Bieber is to their contemporary American counterparts.
Yuko is, you see, an otokoyaku, a young woman trained since early adolescence in the art of playing male characters inspired by Brando, Clift, and most especially James Dean, so much so that she has become every fervent female fan’s ideal man both onstage and off. After all, what woman in love requires a penis from her Prince Charming when the man of her dreams can see into her very soul?
Unfortunately for the Takarazuka superstar, like the proverbial Japanese Christmas cake (still delicious on December 26 but no longer worth buying), otokoyaku Yuko has reached her expiration date, and if twenty-five seems decades too young to call it quits, the time has nonetheless come for a younger girl to take her place.
Documenting Yuko’s farewell to fame is half-Japanese English journalist Nigel Parker (Joseph Lim Kim), whose BBC documentary-in-progress has him interviewing Yuko’s boss (Michael Hagiwara as Ariyoishi), her fans (Joy Regullano and Klarissa Mesee as Junko and Masayo), and her dance partner (Grace Yoo as Chifumi Nobara), Juliet to her Romeo, Ginger to her Fred, Cinderella to her Prince.
Takarazuka!!! alternates between Yuko’s post-retirement life with Dad in her native village and her final weeks in the big-city limelight, Nigel’s camera following her every move.
Young girls audition to join the troupe and a new otokoyaku is groomed to step into Yuko’s spangled tux, while a growing attraction between Yuko and Nigel sits none too well with a jealous Chifumi, whose offstage feelings for Yuko begin to mirror their onstage romantic pairings.
Meanwhile, memories of Yuko’s predecessor, whose despair at being aged out eventually proved unbearable, haunt the theater where she sang, danced, and died.
Like more than a few Japanese movie potboilers of the era, Takarazuka!!! combines melodrama and music, with Japanese-language/English-supertitled song-and-dance sequences giving us a hint of why the real-life Takarazuka Revue welcomes an estimated 2,500,000 fans a year.
Oh, and in case you were thinking that an all-girl troupe would be supported by a mostly male audience, think again. One of Takarazuka!!!’s most fascinating sequences has Hagiwara doubling as an old man who must keep his fandom a deep dark secret, Takarazuka audiences being almost entirely made up of women and girls.
Anyone with a familiarity with Japanese culture will find Takarazuka!!! of particular interest, while those who know little about life in Japan will enjoy the crash course Stanton’s play offers.
Take for instance, the lesson Old Man gives Nigel in the difference between tatemae (the feelings one reveals to the world) and honne (how one really feels), or gaijin Nigel’s frustration at discovering that the more Japanese he learns, the less he’ll be accepted as a foreigner in Japan, or the notion that the bossing around that a Takarazuka newbie gets from more experienced performers can be considered training for life with a future mother-in-law.
Though Takarazuka!!!’s occasionally overblown emotions might make it a harder sell to audiences unfamiliar with Japanese-style merodorama, I quite enjoyed its blend of backstage intrigue and musical kitch—with one exception.
Playwright Stanton divides the role of Yuko between two actresses, one playing “Yuko Mikage-offstage” and the other “Yuko Mikage-onstage,” the reason for which escaped me. Takarazuka!!!’s New York production, by contrast, appears to have had just one Yuko, a decision I would have stuck with for its West Coast Premiere.
Under Leslie Ishii’s astute direction, the entire Takarazuka!!! cast does topnotch work on Little Tokyo’s David Henry Huang Theatre stage, beginning with the excellent Cheung, who has clearly done her otokoyaku homework as “Offstage Yuko,” differentiating subtly but clearly between 1975’s cocky superstar and the softer, drabber, more feminine retiree she has become a year later.
Yoo not only looks gorgeous (and shows off pitch-perfect Japanese) as Chifumi, she proves herself a stellar triple-threat in multiple musical numbers opposite seductive, golden-voiced “Onstage Yuko” Janelle Toyomi Dote, while romantic leading man Kim charms and delights as the suave and sexy Nigel.
The terrific trio of Hagiwara, Mesee, and Regullano get possibly the evening’s plummest assignments, Stanton’s script giving each one multiple roles to play: Hagiwara’s cold fish of an Otosan, imperious impresario Ariyoshi, and secrets-hiding Old Man; Mesee’s eager fan Masayo, able Stage Assistant, and All About Eve-y Rui; and Regullano’s well-trained Conservatory Student and most especially her hilariously spot-on Yuko-obsessed Junko.
Cindera Che choreographs Takarazuka!!!’s musical numbers with Golden Era Hollywood pizzazz as seen through a Japanese lens, with June Suepunpuck’s glittery costumes adding to the glamour and glitz as does Tesshi Nakagawa’s terrific multi-location set with its production number-ready staircase to/of the stars. Jason Bieber’s expert lighting design, Nathan Wang’s melodic musical composition and crystal-clear sound design, and property master Yee Eun Nam’s multiple Japanese props are first-rate as well, as are Nicholas Drashner’s titles (despite being situated rather too high up for easy viewing).
Maya M. Rodgers is stage manager.
Having once spent a decade or so of my life immersed in Japanese language and culture here in Los Angeles, I found Takarazuka!!! of particular fascination, but even those less familiar with the country of its setting will find much to enjoy and appreciate in this intimate glimpse at lives lived behind closed stage doors.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
November 12, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont