Shamhat! – Cabaret on April 23, 2015

The Burlesque Show Shamhat Takes Place on April 23

One has little more to do than turn on the television to realise that Japan loves a variety show. Whether it’s singing, dancing or comedy, variety light entertainment pretty much dominates the non-food based airwaves, which is why CapriBlue’s Nagoya-based burlesque show Shamhat is destined to be such a massive hit.

Okay, that sound you just heard was probably your own brain going hnnnuuuhh? Because when you hear the world ‘burlesque’ you probably think of some seedy strip joint or something, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Laughably so.

You see, the word ‘burlesque’ actually derives from the Italian burlesco or burla meaning a joke or mockery, and the early English burlesque performances were parodies in the late 17th century, sending up Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman classics. As burlesque arrived in the United States, to great popularity, it had metamorphosed into a variety show format, but with a touch of female striptease set to the increasingly popular Jazz swing music.

But while it was the nudity that was grabbing headlines, burlesque’s popularity would not have been so great were it not for the bawdy comedy; the skin bringing the punters in, the laughs keeping them in their seats. Which is why Japan’s burlesque scene is growing, and at the forefront of the movement is Nagoya’s very own Gigi D’Errico and his partner Asako Takayanagi with their Jazz duo CapriBlue.

Classically trained musician D’Errico began performing in his native Napoli at the tender age of 7, turned professional at 14 and toured the world with the Neapolitan orchestra. After taking a job performing Canzone Napoletana at Nagoya’s Italia Mura (Italian Village) in 2005, he found himself falling in love with the city. Alas, in 2008 the village closed down but, rather than return to his homeland, D’Errico stayed in his new home. It was somewhat fortuitous that he did, as it was here that he saw, playing the contrabass in the Central Aichi Symphony Orchestra, Asako Takayanagi. He was blown away.

So much so that he hunted her down and persuaded her to form a duo, CapriBlue, performing Belle Époque jazz and swing tunes. Not wanting to stifle themselves playing the same old jazz cafes and bars, they hit the road finding unusual locations such as the famous Kodaiji temple in Kyoto. And it was on that very road that inspiration struck.

“I had been thinking of burlesque for some time,” D’Errico told NagMag from his Nagoya office, a room littered with evidence of a lifetime on the stage. “The era of its greatest influence, the music, it matched our style, but I had no story. On the way back from Kyoto, it came to me. I wrote it on the journey back to Nagoya.”

That story came to be his first burlesque show, Petit Café CapriBlue, a surreal tale in which the clientele of the eponymous café are trapped in time, perennially at three o’clock, tea time all of the time. Through song, dance, by whatever means necessary they try to advance time, but to no avail, leaving them at the show’s ending, still stuck.

The show was a roaring hit, packing the theatre. There are perhaps many reasons for the success: the story, the local talent (including friend of NagMag, Chris Glenn), the songs, but perhaps the greatest pull was the Canadian queen of burlesque herself, Scarlett James.

“Scarlett is just wonderful” enthuses D’Errico. “In Japan burlesque is growing, but still underground. Most of the performers are go-go dancers still, not real burlesque. With Scarlett we play authentic burlesque.” And now that authenticity is back, because the Petit Café is returning for a reprisal in a new George Van Horne co-directed show Shamhat.

Shamhat finds the café’s customers still trapped in time, somehow catastrophically shunted back to the court of Marie Antoinette. As well as James, once again the stage is littered with stars. You may recognise Pietro Cristo from various Japanese TV dramas and commercials. He plays the husband of guest star Jazz vocalist Prisca Molotsi. Running the show are the MCs: KouKouChan, the fluttering, amorous keeper of time played by Japan’s number one burlesque star and avant-garde genius, Miss Caberetta; and Crissino, the man for whom KouKouChan holds a bright burning candle, played by the aforementioned housewives’ favourite Chris Glenn.

The show itself is an intriguing mix of improvisation – the actors are essentially playing themselves, reacting as they themselves would in such a surreal situation – and hilarious songs, performed by not one, but two orchestras, and brought beautifully to life by Misao Yuchigawa, choreographer for the Chunichi Dragons’ Cheerleaders. Although the show is in Japanese, it is in a natural, easy to understand tone, and provides such a spectacle that it at times transcends language. One such scene, without wanting to give too much of the game away, includes a Prisca Molotsi tribute to James Bond, a giant cocktail glass and Scarlett James. It promises to be worth the entrance fee alone.

With a name like Shamhat (a sacred prostitute of ancient Greece who used her allure to charm the wild Enkidu from a bestial state to civilisation), of course themes of romance and sex are never going to be far away. And it is here that your eyebrows raise once more, and you’re again thinking of the strip joint, imagining an audience of the dirty mac brigade of lonely men with hairy palms and bad eyesight. But it is a suggestion that D’Errico laughs off, showing NagMag photos of the predominantly female audience from the previous show, glamorously dressed as they would for any trip to the theatre.

NagMag wonders whether perhaps the photographer had a soft spot for the ladies, but D’Errico corrects us, confirming that women make up 80% of their audience.

“Japanese women love beauty. They bring their husbands and their friends. They love the clothes and they love glamour, and they love to laugh. In the last show we had all types of people. We had a 70 year-old lady and we had the S&M model Mistress Hibiki. But people really enjoy it because the story is hilarious and surreal.

“It is the most unique event in Japan, and it is the spirit of burlesque.”

Shamhat will be in ArtPia Hall, Nadya Park in Sakae on April 23. Ticket enquiries can be made by mailing petitecafe.jp@gmail.com

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