by Todd Wellman
& Dale Gutzman

June 2007

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Twenty year ago in Japan, Director Dale Gutzman saw a modern version of Chickamatsu’s “Romeo and Juliet” type classic love story “Double Suicide at Amijima.” The story has been told in Japan in numerous forms since the 1600’s; as a puppet play, as Kabuki theatre, as modern theatre, in dance, and on film. The only version to reach the West was the award winning film by Shinodu. Gutzman, along with talented local composer Todd Wellman has worked for the last three years adapting the story into a new musical called “AmijimA.”

“AmijimA”was given its world premiere at Off The Wall Theatre in June 2007. In a Japan crumbling under Western influence, a poor paper merchant deserts his wife and children for the love of a male prostitute, Asagao! The merchant’s brother disguises himself as a Samurai and visits the prostitute to prove Asagao’s unfaithfulness. A wealthy member of the new and powerful Japanese business class also seeks Asagao’s favors and is willing to use bribery and bullying to get his way. The paper merchant’s devoted wife, is torn between duty to her family, loyalty to her husband, and her own feelings. Out of this complex mixture of fascinating characters and motives comes a love story of monumental proportions told in the simple stylized manner of Japanese Theatre.

The play is earthy and erotic, filled with a lust for life and love. Westerners uninitiated in Japanese Art, may be surprised how “colorful and descriptive” the sexual language can be, just as they are sometimes a bit shocked when they first view Japanese erotic paintings. Over a dozen original songs penned for the show with music by Todd Wellman and lyrics by Gutzman, maintain an Asian flavor but are Western in melody and style. Gutzman’s goal is to open up this amazing classic story to Western audiences in a fresh, entertaining way. Off the Wall Theatre’s Scenic Designer David Roper worked with Gutzman to create a marvelous puzzle box set with screens folding every which way and rooms opening within rooms. Special effects included an on stage snow storm.

The cast of almost twenty featured Joe Fransee as Asagao, the male prostitute whose unrelenting love is the catalyst for everything that follows, Jeremy Welter as the paper merchant, Heather Reynolds as his wife, Al Dobyns as his brother, Tom Welcenbach as Tahei, the ruthless businessman, Lawrence Lukasavage as the brothel owner, Sharon Rise as the merchant’s mother-in-law, and Kristin Pagenkopf as Shiguri a town prostitute. Pagenkopf was also choreographer for the show whose dances included an intricate wooden clog dance done to a festive number entitled “KNOCK WOOD!”

One of Milwaukee’s finest talents, the versatile David Flores played the narrator of the story and also sliped neatly into several roles. The always in demand Chris Wszalek served as Music Director. Local costume wizard Ginny Jenkins created two dozen authentic costumes in startling colors and materials for the piece. 

This show was one of the most innovative Off The Wall production ever, and certainly was one of it’s most challenging.

AmijimA was romantic, colorful, funny, tragic, and visually spectacular. All of this in the tiny Off the Wall Theatre Space! 

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