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Takarazuka Chicago: Theater review by Raven Snook
Google a few videos of Japan's all-female, century-old musical-theater troupe Takarazuka Revue and you'll fall down a sequin-and-feather-festooned rabbit hole of outlandish costumes, brassy crooning and synchronized footwork that could make the Rockettes wasabi green with envy. Which is why the wildly popular company's mounting of Chicago—a veritable facsimile of the stripped-down, sexed-up revival that's been playing on Broadway for the past two decades—is such a letdown. The tale, about Prohibition-era killers Roxie and Velma (Hikaru Asami and Yoka Wao) vying for attention and showbiz gigs from their jail cells, lacks Takarazuka's signature eye-popping aesthetics. And while its rigorously trained ladies are triple threats, satire and seduction aren't in their wheelhouse. They try valiantly to fake it, but even when they're gyrating and screaming (literal) bloody murder, the affair seems sanitized. (Reading translated punch lines in the supertitles before hearing them in Japanese also robs them of bite.)
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And yet there are aspects of this rendition that improve upon the Main Stem revival due to the gender-bent casting, with the female performers finding fresh emotional layers in their male characters. This is the first time I've ever gotten a lump in my throat listening to Roxie's hubby Amos sing "Mr. Cellophane" (which I usually skip on iTunes). Forty-plus-year Takarazuka vet Chihiro Isono makes him more than just a patsy; we feel his pain at every betrayal and slight. Meanwhile lawyer Billy Flynn (Saori Mine) comes off as slicker and impressively single-minded; he cares about one thing and, despite what he sings, it ain't love. Mine is especially effective in "We Both Reached for the Gun" as she manipulates Roxie like a ventriloquist dummy (though she went quite flat on the extended final note).
The dancing is noticeably superior to the singing throughout, though its hallmark is precision, not pizzazz. If you crave the latter, be sure to stick around for the post-curtain encore: a fabulous, 15-minute sampler of Takarazuka staples. Decked out in a succession of outrageous ensembles, the ladies perform a cavalcade of over-the-top production numbers. "Hello Takarazuka!" evokes a G-rated Folies Bergère and ends in a classic kick line. "El Tango de Roxanne" reimagines the Police hit as a tribute to forbidden love. And during the closer, "Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht," the ladies parade across the stage with elaborate feathers sported by the stars. (Apparently, larger feathers connote greater celebrity!) It's a jaw-dropping and cheesy Ziegfeld-style moment that makes the show that came before seem even drabber. Takarazuka would definitely be more at home in Vegas than Chicago.—Raven Snook
David H. Koch Theater (Off Broadway). Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Ebb and Bob Fosse. Directed by David Hyslop. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 50min. One intermission.