Stage

The 'King' returns and theaters look to Russia for 2019

by Nobuko Tanaka

Contributing Writer

Whether it’s regular theater that gets you going these days — or you’re skipping along more to musicals — as 2019’s curtains rise, variety will be the spice of live stages this coming year.

In the realm of musicals, American composer Dave Malloy’s 2012 “electropop opera,” “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” is running through Jan. 27 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (TMET) in Ikebukuro.

For its first production outside the United States since a casting disagreement ended its Broadway run after some 360 shows, this adaptation of part of Leo Tolstoy’s epic 1867 novel “War and Peace” features Erika Ikuta, a young veteran musical theater actress and member of the female idol pop group Nogizaka46, and leading musical theater actor Yoshio Inoue, in the title roles of aristocrats Natasha and Pierre.

With live music and a set evoking an opulent Russian salon — in which some of the audience even sit on stage with drinks — this Tony Award winner is set to burn bright in the memory for years to come.

With English dramatist Phillip Breen directing a Japanese cast in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” down the road at Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya through Feb. 1, Russian works are prominent from the get-go in this year’s theater — with more to come.

Elsewhere in January, the musical “Love Never Dies” returns to the Nissay Theater in Hibiya following its hit run in 2014. With Masachika Ichimura and Megumi Hamada heading an all-star cast, this take on English maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber’s romantic 2010 sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” will be worth seeing.

In February, the director Shintaro Mori presents Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov’s 1878 work “Platonov” at TMET. With one of the late master Yukio Ninagawa’s favorite actors, Tatsuya Fujiwara, in the title role, this abject tale offers an interesting background to the playwright’s familiar major works.

As the artistic director of Saitama Arts Theater, Ninagawa aimed to stage all 37 Shakespeare plays there, but only managed 32. Now, though, his project has been taken over by the veteran actor and director Kotaro Yoshida, who will perform in and direct “Henry V” in a Feb. 8 to 24 run.

Meanwhile, the popular 2007 musical “Legally Blonde” returns after a break of two years to Theatre Creation in Hibiya, Tokyo, on Feb. 11 ahead of an eight-city tour.

In spring, more fun is set to take over Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya with the return of Cyndi Lauper’s tunes in “Kinky Boots,” a crossover hit with both theater lovers and musicals fans when it debuted in 2016.

Running April 16 to May 12, it sees the pairing of Teppei Koike as young Charlie Price, who inherits a failing family business making traditional English shoes, and Haruma Miura as Lola, a cross-dresser cabaret singer who pushes him to switch to the titular “kinky” boots that save the firm.

As the show’s PR catch-phrase puts it, “Japan gets kinky again!” — but really, this wonderful tale of respect overcoming prejudice is sure to gladden everyone’s hearts.

April also sees Eriko Ogawa, the new artistic director of the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), launch her first full season with Chekhov’s 1896 work, “The Seagull.”

With the versatile director Yumi Suzuki at the helm, this marks the launch of an initiative by Ogawa to ensure that instead of the cast being appointed as usual by the director and producer — which results in many of the same faces repeatedly appearing together — every role is filled through open auditions.

Added to that, it will be interesting to see what Ogawa comes up with at the NNTT in July when she directs “Hone to Jujika” (“Keep Walking”), a new play by the socially astute, 41-year-old playwright Moegi Nogi.

Certainly, with Ogawa in charge it’s to be hoped the NNTT attracts more of the younger people who normally prefer light entertainment or who don’t go to theaters at all.

In May at Theater Cocoon in Shibuya, the associate director of London’s National Theatre, Simon Godwin, will stage his first Japanese collaboration in a production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with Masaki Okada as the tormented Prince of Denmark.

The following month, Tokyu Theatre Orb is set to recapture the headlines with a three-week run of 2013’s hit Broadway musical “Pippin.” For this first production with an all-Japanese cast — and with heartthrob musical theater star Yu Shirota as the eponymous young medieval prince searching for meaning in life — tickets will surely be hard to come by.

Also in June, the Imperial Theatre in Ginza will be vying for attention with a three-month run of the Austrian musical “Elisabeth” — the 11th production in Japan since it was first performed here in 2000.

This powerful take on the fairy-tale yet ill-fated life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916), had its world premiere in Vienna in 1992. Since then, more than 10 million people have seen it worldwide — with Tokyo’s audiences hopefully helping to foster more major homegrown productions like this in the future.

After that, the international Theatre Olympics is set to ignite performing arts passions in September — albeit focused on the beautiful, deeply rural village of Toga in Toyama Prefecture, where the internationally renowned director Tadashi Suzuki has created a vibrant theater hub.

Since the first Theatre Olympics in 1995, the event inspired by Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos has moved from country to country, and will be jointly hosted in 2019 by Toga and Russia.

With Suzuki saying he hopes this will illustrate new possibilities for international solidarity through theater, Theatre Olympics promises to bring lots of good artistic sense to bear on everyday politics.

Finally, it has been announced that the 2015 Tony award-winning musical “The King and I” will run at Tokyu Theatre Orb in summer with its original U.S. cast — including Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam and Kelli O’Hara as Anna Leonowens, tutor to the king and his children, and playing the titular “I.”

Watanabe, the international movie star who played the rebel warrior hero in 2003’s hit movie “The Last Samurai,” made his Broadway debut in “The King and I,” for which, in 2015, he became the first Japanese person nominated for a Tony Award as “best actor in a musical.”

Inevitably, the star’s return home will be a massive media event that will hopefully encourage new audiences to witness Japanese entertainment history and experience the magic of the stage.