angelofmusic: Sena Jun & Shirota Yuu (Wenn Ich Tanzen Will)
[personal profile] angelofmusic
Musical: Elisabeth
Production: Live
Theatre: Toho Imperial Theatre, Tokyo
Date: 28/10/2010 & 29/10/2010

To say I like the musical Elisabeth might be an understatement. I am very fond of a show which is so dark, so cynical, and all about the machinations of Death. Death is the reason I first fell for the show, and Death remains the character I love the most from it. I've seen multiple productions on DVD and I have seen it live 6 times now, three times in Hungary, and three times in Japan (once in Takarazuka's All Women Revue and twice in co-ed editions).

Of all the productions I've seen, the Toho Imperial Theatre production has always been my absolute favourite. It takes the ideas of the productions that came before it, and honed it, smoothing the rough edges and adjusting the plot to make a story which flows perfectly. Even the tiny adjustments to the orchestrations (such as the reprise of 'Wenn Ich Tanzen Will' when Elisabeth dismisses Death during 'Maladie') only add to bringing the show together as a whole.

This particular trip to Japan came hard on the back of last year's trip. I first aimed for the land of J when I heard that Tsukigumi (Moon Troupe) of the Takarazuka Revue would be performing Elisabeth in 2009. That we even managed to get tickets was counted as a minor miracle, as the tickets for the show are like gold dust. That show was a wonderful experience itself.

Then, the Top male-role performer of the troupe announced her retirement, and we were sad. And less than three months after her retirement, it was announced that after playing Death (and previously, Elisabeth and Lucheni in Takarazuka's productions), she would be returning to the show and taking the role of Elisabeth in September-November 2010.

This only accelerated plans to return to Japan, as I really wanted to go back, and with a chance to see my favourite production of Elisabeth, how could I resist? (Mind you, it doesn't hurt we went at the prettiest time of the year, and were even fortunate enough to get to the Gion Odori in Kyoto. But that's a whole other story)

We were able to get tickets for two performances, which was definitely a good thing, as there were three scheduled Deaths, two Elisabeths, two Sophies and three Rudolfs. Sadly, we missed Yuichiro Yamaguchi as Death, as he was due to appear in Mozart! 5 days later, but weren't too disappointed as we had seen him in Tanz der Vampire in 2009.

First off, I'll review the show, then look at the specific performers. As I mentioned, Toho has always been my favourite production. The sets embody elegant decay, rich and ornate, without being over-the-top. Mind you, given that these are Habsburg decorators, over-the-top is standard anyway ;)

The Toho stage is big, which made the difference from the cramped, cluttered Hungarian production all the more noticeable. This production is completely a work of art, with the sets framing the people and the action. Doorways, windows, columns, walls are all placed to frame what is happening.

The plot remains the same - Elisabeth of Bavaria catches the eye of Death when she is a teenager, and for the rest of her life, even after she becomes Empress of Austria, he is the constant, supernatural shadow haunting her. However, unlike the black cynicism of the original Vienna production or the over-the-top romanticism of the Takarazuka production, the Toho production focuses on the haunted, emotionally fragile and deeply unhappy woman at the heart of the story, who was pushed into a spotlight she never wanted and fought to be who she wanted to be.

This particular production also acknowledges that Archduchess Sophie had her vulnerabilities (Bellaria) as well as giving Rudolf a chance to show his strengths rather spending all his time on stage whining. The scene which precludes Hass shows Rudolf forcing Franz Josef to see what's going on, and more importantly, Franz turning away from the situation while Rudolf tries to fight it. This is a Rudolf who you can believe as an idealist, and who is fighting to turn a machine which is sunk so deep in its treads that it's trundling on to its own destruction despite his best effort.

Even Elisabeth is given greater authority in her own situation. As mentioned, the melody of 'Wenn Ich tanzen Will" in 'Maladie', which has always been a scene that weakened Elisabeth allows her a moment of strength, even though it fades when Death departs.

This is really a show which serves to emphasis the futility of the actions of man, even the actions of an Emperor, and makes Death's power so absolute, even as people struggle to resist and change and fight. I think this is why it concludes with Death places Elisabeth in her coffin - no matter if she is now free, she is - and always be - his.

One of my favourite things about the show is how a slightly different performance by one or more cast members can make the whole show darker or more tragic or even more romantic. You have the same sets, the same basic direction, the same lighting, the same music, but the slightest of nuances can tilt it one way or the other.

Now, to the cast:

Asami Hikaru as Elisabeth

I loved Komu when she was a member of the Takarazuka Revue, and was unsurprised that she is one of the four ex-Takarasiennes who stole this role. I'm sure there are more who wants it, but now Ichiro-san is back, I do wonder if she'll reclaim the role she originated in Japan.

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by Komu's performance. She acted the role beautifully, going from teenage-tomboy to dignified Empress, to simply a woman in search of freedom very well. Trouble is that while Komu's otokoyaku-style (male role) singing was deep and powerful, singing a female role in a feminine voice just isn't her forte.

She could hold the melody, which is enough, but unfortunately, she has a very shrill upper register. Some of this may be stylistic, because I've noticed it in traditional Japanese singing, but it - sadly - lessened my enjoyment of her performance, as I loved her voice when she sang lower.

I am still very glad we saw her, though, as she did present a very interesting Elisabeth.

Sena Jun as Elisabeth

By sheer chance, we ended up with tickets to Asako's last performance as Elisabeth. She blew me away as Death when we saw her in the Takarazuka revue in 2009, but as Elisabeth, she could not have been more perfect if she tried. She ranks as my joint favourite co-ed Sisi, alongside the wonderful Maki Ichiro.

This was a perfect show for her, and she clearly loves the role and the character. She performed the role of Elisabeth back in 2005, in Takarazuka, and has clearly spent a long time thinking about improvements she could make, should she ever play the character again.

Her acting was exquisite. Her young Elisabeth is mischievous and charming, without being annoying. She gets easily distracted by butterflies and cake, and dotes on her sister, and this child is the one who is humiliated when her mother-in-law realises the marriage has not been consummated. This child, in that moment, becomes a woman, and that's when Asako really, really shines.

The range of emotion she showed was wonderful, and the interactions with each character was so different and wonderful. The dynamic with Death was especially great. It's often the case that one or the other character will be overwhelming, but this Elisabeth-Death combination really worked: here was a strong Death, who was demanding and forceful, and yet, the Elisabeth was able to stand her ground in the face of all his passion and fury, and was unafraid.

On top of this, the stunning voice Asako had as an otokoyaku has only been enhanced. The vocal range she has is incredible, and her 'Watashi Dake Ni' gave me goosebumps. Combined with her expressive acting, that voice is just breathtaking. The asylum sequence was devastating and beautiful, while Rudolf's funeral gave me chills, as the strong, passionate woman she was had been reduced to a shivering, weeping shell.

If I could own any production of Elisabeth on DVD, I would want it to be this one. It's the first time I've actually been so completely captivated by Elisabeth. The character is not one of my favourites, and I usually watch the action around her, but Asako was mesmerising.

Shirota Yuu as Death

We saw Shirotan as Death opposite Asami Hikaru, and really, I couldn't stop watching him. He's a very young Death, only 24, and it's his first major, serious musical theatre role. I don't think the Sailor Moon musicals really count. But he definitely impressed, particularly his voice. I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was.

His take on Death was something completely original, which - given the number of versions I've seen - is really saying something. Very few Deaths come across as truly non-human. Some are magical, yes, but there's a humanity to them, which makes them easier to understand. Shirotan was the most ephemeral, eerie, supernatural Death I have ever seen. He creeped me the frick out, which is saying a lot.

The way he moved was as if he was not quite sure how a human body should move, with delicate, cautious steps. It was almost cat-like. His confusion at his infatuation with this mere girl came across in the way he would pause, the tilt of his head, his very lack of facial expression, as if he were registering what was going on, considering how he should reacte were he human, then reacting.

When he arrived at Elisabeth's wedding, unlike other Deaths, he lurked in the doorway, not even looking at Elisabeth. It almost sounded like he was monologuing to himself, trying to reason to himself about why he had come, before confronting her.

Personally, I also loved the touch in Maladie, when he came in, disguised as the Doctor. Normally, they wear a coat and hat and that's it. Shirotan was stooped and moved like an old man, so when he suddenly straightened up and the disguise fell from his shoulders, he almost felt like he was shape-shifting, which only added to the mystique of his Death.

He was a fragile, haunting, mysterious and genuinely frightening Death, and I know it's a performance I won't forget for a long time. (also, the fact he reminded me of Jareth from Labyrinth doesn't hurt ;))

It was also his last night, and he got so bashful when he had to take his bows and make his speeches. By the end of it, he was fighting back tears as he said what a wonderful experience it had all been, which was just adorable.

Ishimaru Kanji as Death

Completely a counterpoint to Shirotan's, but it worked fantastically. This was a powerful, passionate force-of-nature version of Death. He stalked around like he owned the place, he was a rock god awaiting adulation. If he wanted something, he would take it, silly soppy emotions be damned!

It was such a contrast to Shirotan's that it took me a moment to catch my breath. Plus, Kanji-sama has a big voice. Old-school opera-trained from the sound of it, but used in a "I am rock God, hear me roar" style, which really works for the arrogant, proud, dangerous Death he played.

This was a Death who had no qualms about being handsy, pulling Elisabeth every which way, groping her, pinning her to her couch with his own body, and generally being over-confident and proud of it. When faced with a Death like this, you need a Sisi with nerves of steel, and thankfully, we had Asako.

The two of them sparked off each other amazingly. He pinned her, she shoved him back, he grabbed her, she swatted him away. Their duets were especially powerful and intense, and I loved that neither of them would back down. I do wonder how different a show it would be with Shirotan/Asako or Kanji/Komu. I think every Death/Sisi combination for this run must have been utterly different.

Ishikawa Zen as Franz Josef

He could not have been more perfect, if he tried. FJ is one of those roles which is very difficult to make likeable, as the man is basically Emperor Doormat, stomped all over by his mother. You don't usually see why Sisi was initially so smitten with him, which does put a damper on their relationship.

This was an exceptional Franz Josef. He was a kind, considerate man, who did put duties first, but still unashamedly and devotedly loved Elisabeth. In their first encounter, he couldn't take his eyes off her, and the doting looks persisted whenever they were together. His pride in Sisi was palpable, and he was always waiting, seeking some little sign of affection, even though it was unlikely to come.

I also liked the fact they developed his relationship with his son more, and showed the butting of heads that occurred due to their very different political inclinations. Having FJ turning away from the events of Hass in sick horror, rather than confronting it, showed a man who was too afraid to fight for his country anymore.

The funeral was wonderful and sad, with his faltering steps and shaking hands showing his vulnerability. Ships in the Night was heartbreaking as he reached out to his wife, long after he abandoned his mother's influence for her, only to be overlooked. And the nightmare, when he fights against Death to save Sisi was the most intense I've seen. He watches in horror as his family are cut down one by one, and realises what is coming. He fights like crazy to reach Death first, but Lucheni gets there before him, and sisi is doomed.

I have a favourite Franz Josef. I never saw that coming.

Mori Keaki as Archduchess Sophie

Karincho is amazing. Absolutely amazing. She's exactly what I love in Sophie: she's proud, strong, determined, forceful, and yet, sometimes, just enough, you get the glimpses of her frailties and fears.

This was a Sophie who has built herself into an image to make any powerful woman proud, sacrificing emotion into the bargain. Every mood she has, she controls, manages and uses. By the time Sisi comes along, Sophie is clearly no longer used to being both disobeyed and having someone respond to her face-to-face in such negative ways.

The relationship between Sophie and little Rudolf was fascinating. He comes to her to ask to see his mother, and she talks to him as a Prince, not a child, and for a moment, he seems to be coming under her spell, that this is the way he should be. For a moment, she is shaping a second Franz Josef. Then, just when she eases of the verbal pressure, he catches her sleeve and is a child again. Karincho's puzzled expression, edging the fine line between confusion and contempt for Rudolf's behaviour, was so subtle, and the deliberate way she drew her sleeve from his hand made it clear that no appeal would break her.

And of course, you have Bellaria, which is the moment when Sophie's world comes crashing down. Her machinations have resulted in Franz's relationship with Sisi completely falling apart, and he confronts her, rejecting her in favour os his wife. Sophie, who has only ever done what she believed was right and necessary for the sake of the Empire, is left alone in the darkness, and when Death's angels come for her, she has no strength left to fight.

This song is either really boring or - when done right - can tear out your heart and smash it with a sledgehammer. Karincho made it the second, a woman who has given everything for son and country, only to rejected by them. I was sniffling throughout. Karincho took the villain of the piece and managed to make her frustrating, compelling and incredibly sympathetic.

Urai Kenji as Rudolf

As mentioned previously, Rudolf was given some backbone, which actually him a much more interesting character. Based on the dynamics of the characters he is related to, the way Kenji-san played him, he had his mother's passion, his grandmother's political determination and his father's tendency of being squished by the people around him.

For once, though, he had some agency of his own, and when he spoke to the revolutionaries and tried to make the changes, you could see it was more than just Death's guidance which was making him act: this was a firebrand Rudolf, with beliefs and the will to fight for them.

It was a great way to play it, burning like a firework, which fades far too quickly and far too young. Death lit the fuse, watched him go boom, and then caught him when he fell. It was a great dynamic, particularly when played against Ishimaru Kanji. Less so with Shirotan, simply because Shirotan's Death was less deliberate in his destruction of the boy. Kanji-san was delighting in the fact he was making everything implode.

Takashima Masahiro as Lucheni

This is his role. He's been playing it for years, and knows when to add the extra sarcasm and extra smarm. He clearly enjoys it far too much, especially when he can tease the audience and make them laugh and applaud him especially.

I was told he was criticised for not being able to sing as well as some, but to be honest, this character doesn't really need to. To pull of Lucheni, you need to have the wicked gleam in your eye, the sarcastic vitriol and the smirk. Masahiro-san has all three and works with them. He remains one of my favourite Luchenis.

Honourable mentions must also go to the Angels, who really must live on caffeine and sugar. Death's lackeys, they bound around the stage, manipulating events and generally causing chaos on their boss's command, whenever he so wishes. Plus, Mayerling was especially interesting as they were all in dresses, driving Rudolf mad, then shed their garment to torment him completely into insanity and suicide.

The revolutionaries and the Habsburg court were also an interesting bunch, but I will freely admit that when I watch this show, my eye usually drifts sideways towards Death whenever he's onstage. And, on this occasion, to Elisabeth, Sophie and Franz ;)

I'm so glad that I made the effort to go and see this show. It has reminded me why this particular production has always been and will always be my favourite. Koike Shuuichiro knows what he's doing when he gets a hold of musicals, and I loved every moment. Especially the second show. Seeing Asako live, in that role, was breathtaking. If only there was a DVD.
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