By Aiko Komai / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterYuzuru Kurenai looks every bit the quintessential Takarazuka Revue star. With a height of 173 centimeters, the actress specializing in male roles is a cool beauty with slender limbs.
Yet her immense popularity also comes from her great sense of humor. Her ad-libbed onstage jokes and the particularly amusing remarks she makes offstage make her a singularly “funny” star in the all-female revue company.
Having interviewed her, however, I realized that she is much more than that.
Last autumn, a technical problem briefly interrupted a performance of “Romance!!” at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. When the performance resumed, Kurenai appeared onstage immediately, saying, “Thank you” and “Sorry.” She then improvised by singing to warm up the audience. During a recent performance of “Om Shanti Om” at the Tokyo International Forum, she picked out a former Takarazuka member in the audience and drew her into an off-the-cuff conversation.
Kurenai is such a free soul and she never slips up. There’s something about her that makes the audience look forward to seeing something they have never seen before.
Hailing from Osaka, Kurenai made her debut with the company in the musical “The Prague Spring” in April 2002. She belongs to the Star Troupe, one of the company’s five troupes, and was promoted to become the troupe’s top star last year.
Most Takarazuka members destined to become a lead performer are picked to play an important role from early in their careers with the company. Then they run up the ladder to success. Kurenai, however, reached stardom through an irregular route.
“My record [at the Takarazuka Music School] was not very good when I joined the revue company,” she said. “I was second from the bottom in my class, close to the booby prize.”
There were times when she was given no part in many of the scenes in the revue shows. Since she had ample time on her hands back then, she would spend hours watching plays. Even during a performance, she would watch from a stage wing how top stars performed even though older members told her to move out of their way.
“Those days have now become my strong assets,” she said emphatically.
She would come up with various small acting ideas that were not written in the script, or she would add her own arrangements to her stage accessories. Many fans were quick to notice a sparkle in her as she continued making efforts in the farthest corner of the stage.
“Even when I was a rank-and-file member playing minor roles, dozens of people waited for me at the stage door on my birthday. One older member was surprised, saying, ‘Who’s fan club is that?’” Kurenai recalled.
A big opportunity for her to shine came in 2008, when she grabbed the lead role for a performance of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by the troupe’s young members at the Takarazuka Grand Theater, the company’s main venue in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. At the company, each production period includes one day assigned to a young members’ performance, both in Takarazuka and Tokyo.
The musical with music by Frank Wildhorn is based on Baroness Orczy’s novel of the same title, which tells the story of British nobleman Percy Blakeney helping free imprisoned French aristocrats at the time of the French Revolution.
Kurenai was so nervous when the younger members’ performance began that she put forward her arm and leg on the same side at the same time.
“My heart was almost popping out of my mouth,” she said of the nervousness. “But when I stood stage center, I could let it go. I enjoyed every moment of the performance after that.”
She grew so relaxed that she even ad-libbed some spirited jokes. In one scene, Percy suggests to his nemesis Chauvelin, who is always dressed in black, that he wear some different clothes. At the young members’ performance of the musical in Tokyo, Kurenai dared to say, “How do you like body tights in scarlet and black?”
After showing grit as well as fresh unconventionality, she heartily thanked the audience during the curtain call. The performance was a big success and heralded the birth of a new star.
Kurenai subsequently began receiving major roles such as Karenin in “Anna Karenina” and King Louis XIV’s younger brother in “Le Roi Soleil.” She also played Frank Abagnale Jr. in the company’s production of “Catch Me If You Can” at Akasaka ACT Theater in Tokyo and Theater Drama City in Osaka.
This time the company is reviving “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” as she will perform at the Takarazuka Grand Theater for the first time as the Star Troupe’s top star.
“It’s a costume play about aristocratic people. The story is so fantastic that it makes me really excited,” she said. “I hope to show the audience our best performances, to surpass the previous production.”
She says the amount of energy she expends in each production has not changed since the day she played Percy in the young members’ performance.
“I’m always on the edge of a cliff,” she said. “Even today, I feel scared.”
As long as she stays in awe of the stage, she will continue being a charismatic star.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” will be staged from March 10 to April 17 at the Takarazuka Grand Theater in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, and from May 5 to June 11 at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho, Tokyo. For more information, visit the Takarazuka Revue website at kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/index.htmlSpeech