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Elisabeth (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 60, Number 2, May 2008
pp. 302-303 | 10.1353/tj.0.0004

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Takarazuka Revue Company performs musical revues and Western-style musicals with all-female casts for predominately female audiences. With five different companies, ten shows a week at a permanent house outside of Osaka that seats over 2,000, a second theatre in Tokyo, tours throughout the country, and occasional international performances, the group is a commercial and cultural phenomenon: performing to over 2.5 million people a year, it has also inspired a video game, several anime series, and a number of YouTube clips. In a country where the mass culture of digital entertainment and manga (comic books) dominates the youth scene and traditional culture is revered but rarely attended, Takarazuka has a unique niche, appealing primarily to young women through fairly conventional live theatre productions. Unlike the all-male kabuki and noh theatres, Takarazuka has little recognition outside of Japan. The companies perform various styles, from Broadway shows like West Side Story to a musical adaptation of War and Peace, to Las Vegas–style dance revues, to all-women kabuki/noh pastiches.

Elisabeth, a German musical with music by Sylvester Levay and book and lyrics by Michael Kunze, is a plot-driven show with little character development mostly in the English-language style of sung-through mega-musicals, with many reprises of catchy songs. Elisabeth has been in Takarazuka's repertoire, with only minor costume changes, for over a decade. It amalgamates numerous theatrical and popular traditions and demonstrates a somewhat unusual approach to cross-dressing that focuses on women's strength while eschewing sexualized objectification. The production additionally evokes many elements of youth culture, including rock concerts, manga, and anime. Unselfconsciously theatrical and almost completely earnest, it employs myriad commercial techniques (manipulating the amplification levels; large-scale, repeated use of stage fog; hydraulic lifts toward heaven; and obviously mechanical manipulation of scenery) with only a single hint of the irony or pastiche that seems so common in many Western musicals today.

An epic tale based on the life of Elisabeth of Bavaria, the show begins as her murderer—an anarchist—is undergoing a trial in purgatory. Claiming that Elisabeth (Yuri Shirahane) and Death (Natsuki Mizu) always loved each other, the anarchist stages Elisabeth's life as his defense. Throughout her life, Elisabeth and Death continually flirt with mutual love. Toward the end of her life that attraction becomes overwhelming; at one point, Elisabeth finally asks Death to take her, but Death refuses, wanting not just her life but an affirmation of her love. This only happens after the murder, as the couple transcends toward heaven, dressed all in white on a hydraulic platform evoking, Cats-like, a tire with the requisite fog and lights.

While originally written for both male and female performers, the Takarazuka production of Elisabeth subverts Western expectations about the sexualized nature of cross-dressing. While men wrote the original show and adapted and directed it for the Takarazuka Revue Company, Elisabeth employs crossgender casting without the familiar objectification of women for a presumably male viewer: the company portrayed male roles in a passionate, dramatically committed, and esthetically minimal style by altos in tailored but not tight clothes (the performers of male roles are known as otokoyaku), while sopranos in skirts portrayed women (musumeyaku). The musumeyaku dancers freely wore skimpy outfits; there was no need to hide any voyeuristic elements under the guise of cross-dressing. The makeup and wigs emphasized European facial characteristics, but all the women had a strong "feminine" style. No stubble, facial hair (with the exception of one mustache), or lines tried to trick the eye; close-up photos demonstrate that the male characters clearly are played by conventionally "attractive" women, although a willing suspension of disbelief worked to make the male characters believable. The representation of Death seemed inspired by manga and anime: black leather, high boots, long blond hair turning green at the edges, green lips, and intricate embellishments along one hand. Death generally read as an effeminate male character, but sometimes a strong feminine side appeared as the gender representation continually disrupted expectations.

Much of the staging seemed formulaic, but a few moments demonstrated surprising sophistication regarding gender and cultural issues. Toward the end, Elisabeth's son rebuffed...