The Los Angeles audience has a rough sense, by now, of the traditional Japanese theater forms: Kabuki, in particular. We have also had a taste of Japanese avant-garde theater from directors like Tadashi Suzuki.
"Utamaro--The Musical," which will be at the Japan America Theatre through Saturday, thanks to the AT&T: OnStage program, is our first exposure to the kind of show a Japanese businessman and his family might decide to take in on a trip to Tokyo. Written by Taku Izumi (music) and Toshio Fujita (words), the evening owes something to Kabuki, something to Broadway and Las Vegas, and quite a lot to that universal leveler, TV.
It struck this American Tuesday night as an all too "international" show, which is to say, neither here nor there. But if it ran 150 performances in Japan, it must say something to a home audience. Certainly, its mixed signals catch the psychology of modern Japan more accurately than those of a more pristine show.
Its model--its creators make no bones about this--is the American musical. To someone raised on these musicals, it seems rather far off the mark. Yet, this may be how our musicals "read" in Japan: as a collection of cheerful or sad numbers separated by long stretches of conversation.
That would be a fair description of "Utamaro," which strikes us more as a play with music than as a musical. Not that it doesn't have songs, and some pretty ones. But the dialogue doesn't build to a point where the character is impelled to sing, as we like to think happens in our musicals.
Instead, the numbers are pinned on to the story, sometimes at odd times. "Rockland," for example--a song of disillusionment, in the Jacques Brel vein--comes while the show's artist hero is still prospering. "Ryoguku, My Town" also seems amazingly cheerful after a prologue where we've seen the Shogun's government clubbing down the peasants.
And it's not until the final number that Utamaro (Ryoichi Fukuzawa) is seen as a man devoted to his art, rather than to carousing with his friends and to playing practical jokes on his sweetheart (Kyoko Ito). Imagine "Sunday in the Park With George" without an early scene of George at his easel.
The show's dialogue, of which there is a lot, must clarify some of this. But the show's supertitles--side titles, actually--tended to vanish between numbers Tuesday night. And the dialogue wasn't delivered with so much energy that the listener couldn't mistake its import.
Instead, everyone's delivery was on the casual side, as if they were taping for TV, and trusting the cameras and mikes to enlarge their performances. That's not to say that they couldn't be heard. But the extra energy that we've had from Kabuki actors wasn't here. Fukuzawa, for example, makes a likable hero but hardly a commanding one. Ryuji Mizuno as his publisher, though, has some of the rigor and the sense of line that we associate with great Japanese acting--and great Broadway acting. The rest of the company is, well, colloquial.
Designed by Setsu Asakura and staged by librettist Fujita, the show is good to look at, without being particularly lavish. The tourist--as you feel yourself--has a pleasant time, once he stops expecting that something else is in the offing. One can imagine seeing "Utamaro" in the showroom of a Tokyo hotel and being amused by its lack of self-consciousness in its mixture of Broadway high kicks and Kabuki chant.
But I kept thinking of the American company that tried to sell Japanese housewives on the idea of baking instant cakes in their rice cookers. The formula for the cake mix worked, but the housewives wanted to keep their rice cookers for rice.
Maybe they knew something.
'UTAMARO--THE MUSICAL' A new musical, at the Japan America Theatre, presented by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in association with AT&T: OnStage. Music Taku Izumi. Written and directed by Toshio Fujita. Produced by Izumi and Nobu Sumida. Art direction Setsu Asakura. Lighting design Yuji Sawada, choreography Michinosuke Sakagmi and Kikushiro Onoe, sound design Kichiro Shimizu, photography Tsutomu Annen, translations Don Kenny, shamisen instruction Masataro Imafuji, daikagura instruction Senjuro Kagami, kyogen instruction Masamitsu Seimiya, production Allstaff, Inc. With Ryoichi Fukuzawa, Jim Tadano, Tadao Futami, Yoshifumi Ishihara, Hajime Komada, Ryuji Mizuno, Aki Yoshida, Satsuki, Moteki, Kyoko Ito, Miyako Ogawa, Eri Kono, Minoru Ueda, Noriaki Honma, Shuichi Kotaka, Tamotsu Kawasaki, Kazuma Tanuchi, Yukiko Nishimaru, Annu Sugano, Mario Kukuda, Yoshiro Kobayashi, Yoko Koba, Katsuyo Tsukagoshi, Mitsuko Watanabe, Keiko Najamura, Takayo Itagaki, Naomi Matsuzawa, Shozo Hiraoka, Kazuo Nakamura, Masami Hoshino and Shunichi Sasaki. Plays Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Closes Saturday. 244 S. San Pedro St. (213) 680-3700 or (213) 628-2725.