And Broadway thought Stephen Sondheim audacious when he wrote a musical about a painting by the French pointillist Georges Seurat. Japanese playwright-director Toshio Fujita is as ambitious as Sondheim: His engaging 2 1/2-hour "Utamaro: The Musical," which opened a two-night run last night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, encompasses Japan's famous Edo period, circa 1776, viewing it through the eyes of its artists, particularly the celebrated woodblock printmaker Utamaro Kitagawa.
While America and France are roiling in revolutionary tumult, isolated Japan is entering its own troubled age, a time remembered for the artistic contributions of its "floating world" of artists and courtesans. Fujita sketches the time by following the fortunes of young Utamaro, who begins to make a name for himself by painting pretty waitresses.
The play follows Utamaro and his four companions, most of whom are of the samurai class but choose to live as idealistic artists and writers. Frustrated by his poverty, the talented Utamaro joins up with a "superstar" printmaker and begins to make his mark. But when success comes, Utamaro declines into a life of decadent luxury and is filled with ennui and despair. Even the death of his beloved teacher fails to move him; in fact, he's so jaded he stages a fake funeral for himself just to see whether the women in his life will weep for him.
Eventually a new regime comes in, disapproving of the indulgent ways of Edo artists, and in the political housekeeping, Utamaro's friends are silenced by repression. By the time Utamaro wakes from his torpor it's too late -- he only has time left for one more picture before his gift, too, is stifled. So "Utamaro" harbors some moral object lessons in the guise of a cheerily performed musical entertainment: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and if you have a talent, use it or lose it.
The show is performed in Japanese with scene synopses projected in English at the side of the stage. Its message and humor come through quite well, and the occasional witty anachronism livens things up even more, though many of the indigenous asides are unavoidably lost in translation. The story is an engaging one, simply and straightforwardly told, though Fujita has a penchant for indulging in the minutiae of the politicking and physical processes of the printmakers -- there's actually a perky song-and-pantomime scene that illustrates the woodblock printing process.
"Utamaro" is billed as "Japan's first Broadway-style musical," but that may be stretching matters a bit. The dancing is energetic; there's even a jaunty kick line in the woodblock printing scene, but it is distinctively Japanese, employing acrobatics, juggling and fluttering scarfs. The young performers are all energetic and engaging. Miyako Ogawa, who plays the hostess Ohisa, has a particularly lovely voice that moves easily from the trilling, traditional Japanese singing style to a throaty, very Broadway sound.
The music by Taku Izumi -- there are six story-serving songs with English titles like "Ryogoku, My Town" and "The Woman in You" -- is an intriguing hybrid of beauty and kitsch, juxtaposing lovely, ascetic samisen melodies with East-West hybrid pop, Marvin Hamlisch-style schmaltz. Fujita's staging Fujita is certainly remarkable -- American directors and designers would do well to take a lesson from this show's economy and ingenuity. One particularly memorable scene had the company watching "fireworks," which were effectively suggested by parasols opening and shutting in black light.
A Japanese production of the Follies Musical Company, "Utamaro" is playing the Terrace in part to mark the 10th anniversary of that intimate theater, which was given by the people of Japan to the people of the United States.