It's Saturday, July 7.
The Umeda Arts Theatre in the heart of Osaka, Japan, is part of a multi-level complex that includes a world-class hotel, beautiful shops and many restaurants (including a Starbucks - thank god!) FOOTLOOSE won't start until 3 p.m. (an opening matinee instead of an opening night), but by noon the area around the Umeda is buzzing with excited theatre-goers, filling the restaurants or eating their bento box lunches on the plaza in front of the posters advertising the premiere of the Takarazuka Theatre production of our show.
By 2:30, the crowd is surging into the theatre, running up the escalators to the vendors selling everything from Takarazuka t-shirts and pencil cases to handkerchiefs that bear the celebrity endorsement of Kei Otozuki, the star of the Snow Troupe (see Part 2 of "Let's Hear It for the Girls" for a fuller explanation of just what being a troupe’s STAR means.)
As I enter the theatre, I'm greeted by a line-up of many Takarazuka company executives, including Mr. Koichi Kobayashi, who now runs the theatre company that his great-grandfather created in 1913. (Overdinner after the show, he'll tell me how his grandfather was responsible for building the Hankyu International Hotel, where I'm staying, as well as the many other Hankyu hotels, department stores and train lines that fill the landscape of Osaka.)
Once 1,800 theatregoers are settled into their seats, the lights dim, the crowd cheers excitedly, and the show begins. For me, it’s even more thrilling than it was at the dress rehearsal the day before, because now the audience is a show unto itself. They applaud the entrances of the principal players; they clap in tempo whenever a song kicks into rhythm (“Holding Out for a Hero,” for instance); and they laugh at moments of unexpected humor (the director, a lovely lady named Naoko Noyanagi, has obviously found delightful ways to play to the local sensibilities.)
Intermission is a half-hour long, and the audience savors every moment of it, relaxing with food and drink (and their cellphones) in the many theatre lobbies and all over the terrace in front of the Umeda. Many of them take the opportunity to purchase battery-operated glo-sticks, because in Act I, Kei has hinted that they’ll need them for an audience participation moment in Act II.
Sure enough, in the middle of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” Kei steps forward and, addressing the audience directly, teaches them a simple bit of choreography using the light wands. In front of me, I can see ten rows of bobbing light sticks, but what I see when I turn around takes my breath away.
Hundreds upon hundreds of glow sticks bob and spin and dance in the darkened theatre – on the orchestra level… and in the mezzanine… and, high above, in the second balcony. See? It’s almost like (as my old friend Peter Allen used to say) the audience is playing for me!
And once the final, exuberant “Footloose” ends, this audience knows that the show isn’t over. No, no, no – far from it!
Takarazuka has a long tradition of adding a revue to their performance, an elaborate ‘mega-mix’ in which several of the favorite numbers from the show are re-imagined and re-staged… sometimes in elaborate, bejeweled and feathered costumes that would have looked out of context in the show!
We see a new version of “The Girl Gets Around” (the actress playing Chuck – now dressed in a sequined tuxedo instead of t-shirt and jeans – dances with a bevy of chorines.) Following that, a group of sixteen dancers perform an elegant adagio to a sensuous version of “I’m Free”. Then Kei, dressed in rock-star regalia, rises up from beneath the stage and does a rousing reprise of “Footloose” before undergoing a costume change.
Finally Kei and Mimi -- now dressed in fairy-tale prince and princess wardrobe -- deliver the ultimate moment, the signature finale of every Takarazuka production: a pas de deux between the leading couple (Ren and Ariel, in the case of “Footloose”) danced to an instrumental of “Almost Paradise.” And when, at the end of the number, Kei lifts Mimi and spins her around, the audience ROARS its approval!
The standing ovation goes on for nine curtain calls, and during every one, a member of the cast steps forward to thank the audience for their support. At one point, I’m introduced from the audience, and when I turn to wave to the auditorium, eighteen hundred people wave back.
Then I’m whisked backstage to meet the cast and pose for photos – one of which is included below. Notice that the ladies are still proudly waving their glo-sticks!
I want to thank the entire company and managements of Takarzuka Theatre for making my stay so enjoyable and for delivering a once-in-a-lifetime production of FOOTLOOSE!
Friday, July 13
I’m packing for my flight back this afternoon, but had to add one p.s. Yesterday, after a day-trip outside of Tokyo to the ancient seaside town of Kamakura, I was returning by train when I happened to glance over to the reading material of the elegantly dressed woman seated next to me. She was diligently studying a brochure from Takarazuka, and from the page she had stopped to read, the poster for FOOTLOOSE stared up at me.
Somewhere, the theatre gods were smiling down.