Having starred in Japanese productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Jun Sawaki is in familiar territory with Toulouse Lautrec: The Musical. Gazing into the mirror and cursing his misshapen form, Lautrec’s story fits well into the legend of the outsider musical, soothing his personal shortcomings and romantic disappointments with melodic, gentle scoring and lyrics presented in its native Japanese.
Sawaki is undeniably an incredible musical theatre performer. Throwing himself onto his knees and twisting with anguish as he forcefully moves through the production’s lively, tortured libretto, Sawaki feels the poetry of every note of this “Wildhorn-esque” musical. And yet, though Sawaki’s presence is gracious and spirited, his performance at times slips into an unwelcome comic melodrama, overdone for such a small venue and limited staging.
As a production, Toulouse Lautrec: The Musical is a disappointment. Lazily staged and lit only with obligation, Sawaki’s passionate and powerful performance is the set’s only real decoration. There is no shimmering bottle of absinthe or colour-splattered canvas to intoxicate or to inspire the mind and the proceedings consequentially feel more like the workshop of a new musical than the “sell-out” production which it bills itself as.
Perhaps the English version, performed on alternate days by Alex Nasmyth, is a different absinthe dream altogether. Nonetheless, this is a worthy way to spend an hour which, given retranslation and restaging, could be as vivid and exciting as a Lautrec painting.