DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In Japanese culture there’s tatemae — the façade you show to the world — and honne, the silent truth that bubbles beneath the surface, forced down by generational breeding of self-repression. It’s an internal conflict that is examined in Susan Soon He Stanton’s fascinating but slightly sluggish Takarazuka!!!.
Takarazuka is the lesser known and younger theatrical cousin to kabuki. Named after the town of its origin 100 years ago, the all-female company, known as the Takarazuka Revue, specializes in Western-style musicals with women playing male roles.
Stanton has her hands full trying to educate audiences about this Japanese company in the context of a “Behind the Music” style documentary exploring the seamy side of the business that begins when the show ends.
Stanton originally mounted the play with music in 2012 in New York. She has reworked the two-act melodrama, set in the 1970s, for Little Tokyo’s East West Players, where it’s running through Dec. 7 as part of the company’s 50th anniversary.
Stanton’s script needs more editing to avoid needless repetition, a detriment not helped by director Leslie Ishii’s deliberate pacing. Fortunately, the highs overcome the lows thanks to the novel topic and several engaging performances.
What Stanton does well in the 75-minute first act is inject solid humor and musical sections to balance the bleak existence of its protagonist, Yuko (a dual role portrayed by Fiona Cheung and, when she’s singing and dancing, Janelle Toyomi Dote). For several years Yuko has been the James Dean of the Takarazuka Revue, whose almost all-female fan base swoon and scream for her as if she’s the lead of the era’s hottest boy band.
Like boy bands, however, the adoration is short-lived. Company members are expected to get married by their mid-20s and leave the spotlight, which proves difficult for some, including a previous member who hanged herself. The fan culture is embodied by Junko (Joy Regullano), whose devotion includes seeing all of the performances and keeping a scrapbook of all things Yuko.
Now, Yuko’s time to retire has arrived, and it’s being chronicled as part of a documentary by Nigel (Joseph Lim Kim), a half-Japanese filmmaker for the BBC. The plot construct allows Stanton to explain the history and day-to-day operations of Takarazuka.
Nigel is attracted to the aloof Yuko, whose years portraying a man give her swagger and bravado. She’s a stark contrast to her demure and obsessively modest co-star Chifumi (Grace Yoo), a woman who plays only female roles.
What’s also explained is that even though the stars of Takarazuka are women, the boss, director Ariyoshi (Michael Hagiwara), runs things. The company operates like a boot camp, and even the headliners defer completely to Ariyoshi.
The backstage story is interspersed with whimsical and often funny musical numbers that resemble popular Western works, sung in Japanese with supertitles. Cindera Che’s choreography, combined with June Suepunpuck’s costumes, competently convey a lavish high-end production.
Takarazuka!!! loses steam when Stanton pushes the concept that “foreigners can’t understand the Japanese way” too often in the first half. It’s not needed, in particular because she nails the idea in a simple scene where an Old Man (also Hagiwara) juxtaposes tatemae and honne.
The transitions between scenes are fluid, but Ishii’s pacing in several dramatic moments is labored, in particular the silent interactions between onstage and offstage Yuko.
Even through the slower moments, Cheung shines. Her male persona is captivating, even more so when she allows glimpses of Yuko’s feminine side.
The other standout is Regullano, whose rabid portrayal of Junko provides several needed laughs.
The people who run the real Takarazuka Revue would not likely be fans of Takarazuka!!! There are also sure to be those of Japanese descent who disagree with the characterization of their culture as universal and ceaseless mass repression.
Accurate or not, Takarazuka!!! opens a door to a world that outsiders cannot fully comprehend. It may not be an ideal production, but it’s an appropriate one for East West Players.
Takarazuka!!! runs through Dec. 7 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014