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BWW Reviews: TAKARAZUKA!!! - Another Fine Production for East West Players' Successful Resume!

TAKARAZUKA!!!/by Susan Soon He Stanton/directed by Leslie Ishii/David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts/thru December 7, 2014

East West Players can add TAKARAZUKA!!! to their resume of successful, well-produced, innovative, Asian-themed productions.

Based on (but not affiliated with) "The Takarazuka Revue Company" of Japan, Susan Soon He Stanton has smartly scripted this tale of Yuko, their fictional star performer retiring at the top of her game. The playwright has woven insights to Japanese philosophy amidst sharp, witty lines in her two-hour, three-dimensional character-driven drama, directed by Leslie Ishii in a smooth, flowing pace.

The opening scene of TAKARAZUKA!!! simply brilliant in relating to all unfamiliar with Takarazuka, its uniqueness and the strong attraction it holds on its fans. Nigel, a documentarian videoing the final days of Yuko's stage life interviews a couple of extremely enthusiastic fans outside the Takarazuka theatre. Joy Regullano as Junko (the young student fan) and Klarissa Mesee as Masayo (the married fan, more mature only in age, not in actions) bubble, gush, and scream describing all the elements of the all-female Takarazuka and what they mean to them.

Mesee delineates so deftly her three roles of Masayo, Stage Assistant, and the up-and-coming Yuko replacement Rui, you easily mistake the three characters as well-played by three different actresses.

But Regullano wins the title of Queen Scene Stealer as she commands focus every moment she's onstage laughing, crying, whimpering, SCREAMing her undying love for Yuko-her idol, her savior, her god. Regullano most vividly conveys Junko's unbridled devotion to Yuko. Quick! Someone write Regullano a sitcom to star in!

Joseph Lim Kim seamlessly inhabits his integral role of Nigel, the always inquisitive filmmaker serving as this story's catalyst and sometime narrator, sometime observer. Kim's Nigel's the sturdy center of this play with none of the chances for the crowd-pleasing flashiness the other characters get ample opportunities to display.

Grace Yoo as Chifumi (the female lead of this troupe and the Ginger Rodgers to Yuko's Fred Astaire) alternately charms, seduces, loses her mind while sometimes, also singing and dancing at top form. The scene in which Chifumi teaches an ikebana lesson's simply priceless as Yoo's one minute totally in control methodically demonstrating flower arranging steps. Then in a blink of an eye, hammering orchids to death. Amazingly hysterical!

In an intriguing stage device, two actresses perform the part of male lead Yuko; onstage-the graceful dancer/ melodious singer Janelle Toyomi Dote; offstage-the skillful actress Fiona Cheung. During various moments backstage, the onstage and offstage Yukos mirror their movements with an apparent inner dialogue passing silently between them. Very understatedly nice! Cheung even gets a chance to show off her sharp dancing moves in a very sexy tango backstage with Yoo. Hot!

Also essaying three distinctly different individuals, Michael Hagiwara portrays Yuko's old-traditional, disapproving-of-everything father; Takarazuka's ambitious bottom-line-focused manager; and Old Man who has an enlightening chance encounter with Nigel. Old Man offers to explain a Japanese characteristic to a conflicted Nigel who's always been trying to correlate his Japanese half with his Irish half. According to Old Man, there's the surface and the inner. When a true Japanese's asked a question, he will reply with a surface answer. One has to ask the question again to receive the inner answer. This particular scene's most telling, especially for what the Old Man ultimately reveals. Hagiwara's movements in the pin spotlight will pull your heartstrings.

Production values' stellar in their complementary enhancements to Yuko's story. Tesshi Nakagawa's elaborate centerstage staircase (think Vegas showgirls' staircase) with running lights on each step combined with Jason Bieber's lighting designs instantly transform the performers from singing and dancing on stage to the reverse backstage view of them bowing to the audience. Nakagawa utilizes two mid-sized platforms on rollers that get easily positioned as needed in seconds. Bieber's spot-on, moody affecting lighting transforms the various set pieces into stunning live tableaux.

Costumer June Suepunpuck has successfully mined the mix-and-match approach to create her spectacular (Marie Antoinette's gown) mixed with cheesy (oversized soldier's uniform) and age-appropriate (Junko's school girl outfits). Cindera Che choreographed clever routines for the all-female show within the show. Nathan Wang's background musical intros adds the proper magic to the assorted passages.

A shortening of the first act would make for a more streamlined evening. But please don't cut anything Regullano's in!

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From This Author Gil Kaan