I hadn't been expecting much of this show. It's about schoolgirls at theatre school. (More specifically, it's the mega-famous Takarazuka Revue, albeit with the name changed to Kouka Academy to avoid legal issues.) My problem with this is that having done drama school myself in the past, I often find these shows a bit dull and/or unconvincing. I certainly don't find them glamorous. A drama school series could be compelling if the portrayal was detailed and merciless, but that's rare.
My preconceptions were wrong and I loved this.
I wasn't sure about the early episodes, because Ai Narata is unlikeable. She's cold, apathetic and wouldn't lift a finger to help someone who was getting into trouble. She used to be an idol in JTX48 (presumably a name-changed version of the real idol super-group AKB48) until she got sacked for telling a fan to his face that he was disgusting. (We'll meet him and he's nice, albeit unlikely to win any charisma competitions.) It'll turn out, though, that Ai is actually borderline phobic and has issues that, in time, she'll start making serious efforts to overcome. She'd been insisting that she has no interest in other people and doesn't want friends, but Sarasa will turn that into a lie. In the show's second half, Ai becomes likeable and even funny, in her "socially inept but trying" way.
Sarasa, though, is the show's powerhouse. She's one of the all-time classic anime protagonists. She towers over her classmates, being only 15 years old and already the same height as an average Japanese man. She's an idiot genius. She can overthink anything, usually in ways no sane person would consider. She has insane levels of energy, optimism and friendliness, although she's also gullible and can be crushed by a throwaway word. There's a bitch who'll mess with Sarasa's head with nasty little throwaway comments... and not only does Sarasa never hate her, but is friendly and enthusiastic throughout and probably never realises that she'd been dealing with a bitch from the start. You'll love Sarasa. You'll laugh at her nerd dance bonding in ep.4. Frankly, I'd watch thirteen episodes of Sarasa in anything.
In addition, though, the show knows what it's talking about. The discussions of dramatic performance are intelligent and include genuinely good acting advice. They highlight three performance types (Takarazuka, Sarasa's beloved kabuki and the world of top idols) and explain how and why what works in one can be inappropriate in another. I'd be watching rehearsal scenes and genuinely listening to what the teachers had to say. I'd recommend this show to other actors. I'm pretty sure they'd love it.
(Interestingly, all three of those performance types are gender-specific. Takarazuka is all-female, kabuki is all-male and Ai only agreed to become an idol in order to enter a girls-only world.)
The supporting cast can reflect problems of that world. There's a backstabbing bitch. There's a girl who lacks confidence and lets criticism turn her bulimic. There's a student who works hard, is better than Sarasa at everything and has trouble with the fact that Sarasa's capable of outshining anyone just by being herself. (On top of having a personality that could project to outer space, Sarasa is better at kabuki than some professional kabuki actors and is a staggeringly good mimic.)
The last three episodes are all about the girls' auditions to perform a single scene. By that point, we're emotionally invested in everyone. The girl who thinks she's a loser, the twins who'd hitherto always marched in lockstep, etc.
Mind you, I made a mistake in recommending this show to Tomoko, who's a Takarazuka fan. The first thing she criticised was the girls' hair, which in fairness is extreme in Sarasa's case. The real Takarazuka school sounds hidebound and scarily strict, although apparently there was a bit of a scandal about that a while ago and it's been better since. Anyway, Tomoko's core objection to this show was that I'd said it was about Takarazuka, but it isn't. We don't actually see any of the troupe's performances. Instead, these episodes are merely about schoolgirls at theatre school. They'll become Takarazuka actresses in the future, but that's not what's being shown here.
That was my failure in leading Tomoko to expect the wrong thing, though. I loved this show. What's more, apparently the manga's even better. It's also still going. Maybe I'll buy it? I'm certainly hoping for a Season 2 of the anime.