A high degree of skill and individuality accompanies "Takarazuka!!!" at East West Players. In its elegant West Coast premiere, Susan Soon He Stanton's very promising albeit still-forming play with music uses the famed all-female troupe in the titular Japanese city as a backdrop to an intriguing study of gender roles, intergenerational schisms and the cost of success.
It begins in 1976, where protagonist Yuko Mikage (the formidable Fiona Cheung) is having a tea ceremony with her father (ever-reliable Michael Hagiwara). Her onstage self (Janelle Toyomi Dote, lithe and expressive), appears dressed in full-on Fred Astaire regalia, and their synchronized pantomime implies as much as it delineates.
Flashback to 1975, where Nigel Parker (the effective Joseph Lim Kim), a biracial BBC correspondent, is doing a documentary on the Takarazuka Revue Company. He is pointedly interested in Yuko, whose devoted teenage fans (versatile Karissa Mesee and the vivid Joy Regullano) display an unbridled enthusiasm that would not be out of place at an Oscar-night red carpet.
Their fervent hero-worship of Yuko, the current star otokoyaku (female playing a male role) with the company, shrewdly sets up the precis and is worth volumes of cultural footnotes.
So is Cheung's second entrance, now in male garb, with a convincing swagger that conceals deep contradictions. Yuko is soon retiring of her own volition, since she is turning 25 (the traditional time for Takarazuka performers to step down and get married). Certainly, that is what Chifumi Nobara (the sensitive Grace Yoo), Yuko's star musumeyaku (female playing a female role) intends.
Yet their rehearsals and backstage encounters with Nigel and Ariyoshi (Hagiwara), the troupe's intractable director, indicate that Yuko and Chifumi's chemistry and onstage finesse is underscored by an ambiguous attraction, which Nigel and Yuko's burgeoning interest in each other only complicates.
But the core issue is how someone who has grown into adulthood by assuming the male identity deals with a return to being a woman. Cheung, possessed of both bravura technique and telling stillness, radiates this inner tangle, which the interstitial musical numbers, done in Japanese with subtitles on designer Tesshi Nakagawa's dual perspective set, certainly demonstrate by default.
Director Leslie Ishii oversees a handsome production, with evocative assets in June Suepunpuck's lush costumes, Jason Bieber's showy lighting, Nathan Wang's elegiac music and sound and Nicholas Drashner's scene-setting titles.
Cheung's striking turn grounds her admirable colleagues, several in multiple roles, with Hagiwara's musumeyaku-loving oldster, Mesee's alternate turn as Yuko's replacement and Regullano's awkwardly worshipful fan Junko particular standouts.
What isn't quite as cohesive yet is Stanton's text, which has its overview firmly in place but lags in its storytelling. While the subplot involving a former star who haunts the theater is atmospheric, it feels more structurally convenient than wholly integrated, and the Act 2 shift to melodrama could stand more prior groundwork.
And the wonderful numbers, well choreographed by Cindera Che, and the innate female dilemmas and cultural clashes make one wonder if "Takarazuka!!!" wouldn't be advised to continue evolving into a full-fledged musical.
Yet there's value in its objectives and originality in its issues, which bodes well for its future trek out into the world.
"Takarazuka!!!," David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 7. $28-$38. (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.