Not one, but two of the all-time greats of the musical theater are now playing simultaneously in Tokyo. This is the second visit (the first was in 2001) of the Broadway version of “Cabaret,” which won four Tony Awards in 1998 and has just finished a six-year run in New York. There is also a rare revival of the legendary ’70s version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the legendary Shiki Theatre Company, the company that was almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the genre here in the ’70s.
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s zeitgeist novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” the musical is set in the city in 1929, during the Weimar Republic at a time when the atmosphere was “anything goes” after the old order had lost all its authority after Germany’s huge defeat in World War I.
In “Cabaret” we are immediately invited into the dingy demimonde of the Kit Kat Club. There, scantily-clad women and men with their tattoos and tight leather pants from the nightclub’s resident regulars perform erotica combined with revolutionary satire in what turns out to be a supremely decadent mix.
Into this edgy chaos steps our hero Cliff (Michael Curry), an American writer who’s in Berlin to finish a novel. At the club, he immediately meets and falls in love with its flighty English singer Sally Bowles (Andrea McArdle), who is not only mixed up in multiple affairs of the heart (and the flesh), but also harbors an unwavering desire to make it big on the silver screen.
Soon after that, Sally is sacked by the club manager (an ex-lover) and moves in with Cliff. When she then gets pregnant, it’s anyone’s guess who is the father. But Cliff, who is growing uneasy about the turn Germany is taking — their landlady Fraulein Schneider (Lucy Sorlucco) has just broken off her engagement with the Jewish Herr Schultz (John Little) — does the decent thing and gets them both a ticket out.
Alas, however, Sally sees her star-studded future in Berlin, so she decides not accompany Cliff to the USA. He leaves to go back to his hometown, and she has an abortion as they each decide their relationship wasn’t meant to be. Opening on Broadway in 1966, with lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, the first version of “Cabaret” won eight Tonys in 1967, and ran for a total of 1,165 performances.
This production of “Cabaret” was first directed in London in 1993 by stage and movie director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), and was then revived in New York, with codirector and choreographer Rob Marshall (Oscar-winning director of “Chicago”); in that production the Emcee (Vance Avery) was placed center stage.
But what works on Broadway doesn’t necessarily translate to Tokyo. At the midsize Henry Miller Theater, many of the stall seats were removed and replaced with cafe tables and chairs to create a club atmosphere.
At the Tokyo International Forum, no seats were removed, and though a few actors made a brave attempt at “clubbing it” in the front rows, language/cultural barriers made the experience very stiff, and the only people I saw chosen to dance were foreigners. Sadly, despite Mendes’ slick direction, the decadent atmosphere and setting didn’t translate.
The production also seems to rely heavily on risque jokes and unashamedly sexy dancing that is a substitute for the feel of the interwar German social context, while the unfamiliar Western irony and subversion were also largely lost on the audience.
When, in a kind of postscript scene, the Emcee dramatically opened his coat to reveal both a yellow and a pink star on his shirt while standing in a gas chamber — a reference to the extermination of Jews and gays by the Nazis — the feeling of tasteless spectacle was reinforced.
Meanwhile, at Shiodome, the Shiki Theatre Company is offering musical devotees a reprise of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 hit “Jesus Christ Superstar” as it was first translated and directed, true to the spirit of the original, but with some interventions by company founder Keita Asari and artistic director Kaoru Kanamori to adapt it to Japan.
In this version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the actors sport colorful tops resembling kimono and white momohiki (culottes) instead of biblical garb. They also wear kabuki-style makeup using a white foundation marked by strong black and red lines. The props, too, are very Japanese, with big two-wheeled carts used as ramparts and hills.
The songs remain the same, but they are played on traditional Japanese instruments. The story tells of Christ’s last seven days, with Jesus (Daisuke Yanase) portrayed less as divine than misunderstood, and Judas (Mitsuo Yoshihara) not as his betrayer but as a faithful, ordinary young man who loved him from the heart. Both roles are acted superbly, with Yoshihara’s strong, high-pitched singing being especially unforgettable. Altogether, it’s not hard to understand why Andrew Lloyd Webber took this version to London again in 1995 to huge acclaim.