Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

My immediate reaction was, ‘Of course I’ll do it,’” says Amra-Faye Wright at her Suidobashi hotel. “I’d been doing Chicago for so long that it was a natural next step to try it in a foreign language. [And] it came at a time in my life when I was looking for a challenge.”

Japan has seen both touring English-language and localized productions of the beloved Prohibition-era musical. But this is the first time for a Broadway talent to take a lead role in a Japanese-language production of a musical of any kind.

“[Promoter] Kyodo Tokyo came to Broadway and saw me performing this role and went straight to the producers in New York and asked if they could borrow me,” explains the South African-born Wright, who has played the part of the murderess Velma on and off for the last nine years. “The fact that I’m tall and have platinum blond hair might have helped them choose me, because they wanted something that’s going to look different.”

In selecting a recognizable Broadway talent for the show, producer Ronnie Lee and Kyodo Tokyo president Yoshito Yamazaki are aiming to bring together two discrete groups of theater-goers.

“From what I understand, the English and Japanese productions bring in different audiences, and there might be a feeling among Japanese audiences that anything that comes from overseas has a higher standard,” the 49-year-old Wright says. “The idea is to mix the cast so that it mixes the audience.”

Handed a phonetically spelled-out Japanese script and an iPod with a recording of the Japanese lines, Wright set right to work on mastering Chicago in a language she can’t actually speak.

“When I got the script and saw it, I thought, ‘What the heck have I done here?’” she says with a laugh. “I gave myself the challenge of learning one sentence a day. I’ve got the pronunciation down but am now working on the intonation. And that’s what’s really going to convey the meaning.”

The month of rehearsals has been an eye-opening experience for both Wright and the Japanese cast, which features popular actress Ryoko Yonekura (Koshonin) as fellow murderess Roxie Hart and former Luna Sea lead singer Ryuichi Kawamura as scheming lawyer Billy Flynn.

“Acting in Japanese has been an interesting process,” she says. “Luckily, I know the script in English, so I have a reference point. What I’ve discovered is that words are in a way a byproduct of what you’re saying with your body, and we are discovering each other’s body language. Where I will be more demonstrative and louder, the person playing opposite me will match that in ways they haven’t before. Conversely, I may hold back a bit.”

Wright notes that Chicago has long resonated with Japanese audiences thanks to its story of a sensational trial being carried out amid a media circus and its brassy song-and-dance numbers. And so far, the cross-cultural experiment seems to be going well. In fact, after returning to Broadway in July following the end of the Tokyo run, Wright is worried that she may blurt out some Japanese lines.

“It’s already happened,” she admits. “Before I left, a sentence or two slipped out—people were falling about laughing on stage.”

Japanese version of the hit Broadway musical, starring Ryoko Yonekura and Ryuichi Kawamura. June 9-July 4, various times, ¥10,500 (A)/¥12,000. Akasaka ACT Theatre. Tel: 03-3498-6666.