When I arrived at the Tracyton Movie House in North Bremerton on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I was not sure what I was about to experience. Of course, I knew I would see a stage play adaptation of Spirited Away, but what would it be like? Would the director turn it into a musical or change aspects to fit their vision of how the story should be? These and more questions swirled around my brain as we (my girlfriend and I) took our seats and ordered our food. Almost filled to theater capacity, the theater buzzed, and I could overhear from my seat that these were people familiar with the movie and were hopeful of a good experience.
As the lights dimmed and the feature began, a giant screen on the stage made me feel immersed in the original feeling of Spirited Away right away as Chihiro (played by Kanna Hashimoto in the production that I saw though other screenings may feature Mone Kamishiraishi) and her parents had their familiar argument before finding the strange passageway leading to their gluttonous feast which sets the rest of the events in motion.
The production values and love for the source material are evident in the first few minutes. From just the opening scenes, I knew that this would not be someone trying to re-invent the story in their image to make a quick dollar. This was a full-scale love letter that the cast and crew wanted desperately to pay proper homage to. And they succeeded on just about every level.
After the initial story set up, the first thing the audience sees on the screen being lifted is a giant central set piece, which rotates with time. From scene to scene, the set spins and seamlessly creates a new part of this world. From the costuming to the pitch-perfect stage blocking (in particular, I loved the way they handled chase scenes and long hallway runs), the production values in this feature will be top-notch, and at no point over the next two hours does it disappoint.
This seamless rotation from scene to scene keeps the pacing for Spirited Away on point. Occasionally, throughout the production, I checked my clock to keep a perspective on how long it took to tell the story and found a few puppetry sequences that could have been shorter. But the story is otherwise told at a solid rate and pace that matches the movie spot-on.
In my introduction, I mentioned the fear that the crew would turn this movie into a full-scale musical. While there are some musical moments, it will please readers to know that around 90% of the music used in this production is instrumental and atmospheric, creating an overwhelming feeling of immersion in the story.
The best decision the staff made was to use a live hidden orchestra. The audience hears the music with the acting on stage by not having the orchestra visible. It feels like the two elements naturally complement each other without canceling each other out. At no point during a stage production should you ever feel like you are watching a play. Spirited Away is successful in its immersion.
How does the stage production handle the fantastical visual Ghibli elements that we know the original movie for? That would be through brilliantly using tall, short, one-piece, multi-piece, electronic, and manual puppets of all shapes and sizes to bring the creatures of Ghibli to life. And it was mesmerizing to watch these actors ply their puppet craft with various sizes while maintaining their character work.
This is doubly true because of the presentation of stagehands and extras, usually wearing muted brown colors rather than the traditional black. By having the stage hands wearing brown, they match the atmosphere of the production and feel like they are merely natural forest spirits who belong on the stage rather than just some props that need to be ignored. In particular, the work put into recreating iconic creatures such as the No-Face and the stink monster scenes was wonderful as the spirits either grew or diminished, respectively.
If there is one aspect I would nitpick, it would be the presentation of the lead character, Haku. While his costuming and the portrayal of the actor are quite wonderful, his makeup ended up being one of the most distracting things in the entire show. Why the makeup artist painted his eyelids purple and sent him out on stage is anyone’s guess, but the look was jarring at best and distracting at worst.
This faux pas with Haku stands out like a sore thumb compared to the other cast members. From Chihiro to Yubaba, most characters look amazing in their costumes and makeup. One character I adored the work they put into was the multi-armed caretaker, Kamaji, who works with the soots to keep the bath water warm. It required almost half a dozen actors and stagehands alone to properly present. With Haku, however, the production dropped the ball. Is this a nitpick? Absolutely, but no stage production is perfect.
The Spirited Away stage play is a fantastic tribute to the original, for the most part. No matter what aspect of the movie you fell in love with, you will find that part of the stage play to be on par with or better than the original. The final screening of this run in theaters occurs May 2nd, 2023, much thanks to Fathom Events, so I can’t recommend this viewing experience enough!