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A CurtainUp Second Thoughts (#10) Review

The Last Empress
By Les Gutman

Last summer, Korea's first stab at musical theater made a brief visit to New York. Buoyed by a favorable review in the New York Times and an enthusiastic reception by the local Korean community, The Last Empress has now returned to the New York State Theater for a longer stay. Much of the original cast has returned, and readers are directed to David Lipfert's CurtainUp review of the earlier mounting, which is linked below.

In substance, The Last Empress is a fairly formal historical pageant, the kind that seems more popular in the East than in the West. Tonally and as staged, however, it evokes strong references to the very western mega-musical, most especially those of Boublil and Schonberg. The approach is to open a barely-cracked window and expose an important slice of Korean cultural identification by means of a familiar and presumably appealing musical theater form. This proves to be a two-edged sword.

The saga unfolds via sung-through lyrics which have been translated quite literally. While this provokes a degree of clumsiness, it also permits unencumbered consideration of the stunning images contemplated by sometimes baffling language. Good fortune is described as being "blessed like tea in boiling water"; childbirth is hoped to be "as easy as pouring water on a shining mirror"; elite soldiers describe themselves as "the cherry blossoms in the Emperor's garden". Along with the costumes, discussed later, these linguistic gems are the treasures to be mined from this otherwise fairly predictable production. But the lyrics also have a labored and sometimes pedantic quality for which the translation (relayed by means of supertitles) can't be held responsible. (David Lipfert aptly described lyrics sounding "like pages from a history book".) Here, the play's "eastern-ness" works against Western appetites.

The music, on the other hand, appears calculated to resonate in Western ears. Asian influences are incidental, mostly in orchestration; the prevailing sound flows straight out of the Les Misérables songbook. As David noted in his original review, the songs include emotion-filled solos and duets as well as rousing, anthemic choral numbers. There are also high-spirited specialty songs (most notably a Shaman rite that was a performance highlight). The cumulative effect, however, is flavorless, the homogenized  feel of a formulaic score.

The cast performs very well. Taewon Yi Kim has a fine voice as Queen Min, well matched by Hee Sung Yu as the King. Ensemble voices are strong and clear. If there is a weak link in the chain, it is the King's father (Sung Hoon Lee). Musical staging was well-designed, including numerous large and beautifully choreographed numbers. The staging of the differing camps in the traditionalist/modernization debate was reminiscent of Graciela Danielle's choreography of the three constituent communities in the opening section of Ragtime. (See review linked below.) A few dance-based scenes (such as one that could be called a sword dance) while successful in execution were dramatically untethered to the show.

The highly stylized set design, described in more detail by David Lipfert, recalls the then-groundbreaking work of Napier in Les Misérables, especially with its extensive use of turntables to fluidly shift between scenes. There are fifteen scenes here, and the technique is quite effective. The more creative efforts (such as a portrayal of foreign diplomats aboard ships) are less successful mostly because they are too self-conscious. In general, the restraint reflected in the rich but elegantly simple features is admirable; a large share of this success can also be attributed to the exceptional contribution of the lighting.

By far the finest element in this pageant is the costumes. Unlike many other aspects of the show, which seem eager to adopt Western idioms, the costumes unabashedly rejoice in their traditional references. The result is distinguished, celebrating culture with costumes, both for men and women, that are opulent, attractive, interesting and inventive -- truly worthy of a Korean pageant.

Some things about the aspirations of The Last Empress are puzzling: it seeks to expose the world to Korean history, but it also wishes to break into the modern world of musical theater to do it. Although it occasionally finds a comfortable balance, more often such a resolution seems just beyond its grasp.
By Mun Yol Yi, Hee Gab Kim (music) and In Ja Yang (lyrics) 
Adapted by Kwang Lim Kim 
Additional music and orchestrations by Peter Casey 
Directed by Ho Jin Yun 
featuring Taewon Kim, Sung Hoon Lee, Sung Ki Kim, Hee Sung Yu, Min Soo Kim and Hee Jong Lee 
Set Design: Dong Woo Park 
Costume Design: Hyun Sook Kim 
Lighting Design: Hyung O Choi 
Musical Director: Kolleen Park 
Choreographer: Byung Goo Seo 
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, 64th Street at Broadway  (212) 307 - 4100 
Opening night August 4 closes August 23, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 8/5/98

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