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|A CurtainUp Review
The Last Empress
By David Lipfert
South Korea's first original musical is currently receiving a lavish production at Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre. Queen Min is justly revered as the dynamic last queen of Chosun (roughly both Koreas) who effectively resisted Japanese occupation until her barbarous assassination in 1910. The Japanese remained in charge until their defeat with the atomic bomb attack, which makes the opening tableau.
Beautiful Min began life as a commoner. To the dismay of his father Taewongun, King Kojung made Min his second wife. She quickly proved her grasp of protocol and her ability to play off competing foreign interests. Min's reputed power over her weak husband Kojung is soft-pedaled in favor of building up her perspicacious side. Alas, she was only forestalling the inevitable. The Japanese saw her as a cunning fox that could see all too clearly through their designs. Along with her courtiers, she died defending Chosun's independence. An apotheosis scene with heavenly spirits in white sees Min still concerned for the good of her subjects.
This musical is almost entirely solos, a few duets and chorus singing lyrics that sound like pages from a history book with about zero introspection. In the musical theater format, the scenes with the greatest power are usually those where one or more soloists voice their inner emotions. The audience has to wait until almost the end for the single moving moment of the whole show. Queen Min speaks to her faithful General Hong, who has seen her through her quick ascent to power and attempted palace coups. Tormented by her plight, he vows to defend her to the death while confessing his unrequited love for Min. Perhaps the most entertaining scenes are somewhat peripheral to the story. Four lanky young Japanese merchants, a vivacious dancing/singing/acrobatic group, were behind-the-scenes operatives who advanced their country's aims. Dressed in colorful costumes, a female shaman with assistants offered an entertaining interlude.
The sharply raked set employs concentric tilting turntables that provide clever entrances and exits. Rapidly changing backdrops and scenic elements keep up with the story's fast pass through key events in Korean history like the opening to Western business interests and a series of insurrections. Musically, The Last Empress reflects surprising cultural references in addition to Oriental-tinged numbers. Many of the full choruses have the ring of Soviet army numbers, while the queen's retinue offers what could pass for Polish folk tunes. Varied orchestration features oriental percussion instruments and lots of brass.
As Queen Min, Taweon Kim has an ideal voice for musical theatre: a luscious top and a quite separate, more forceful bottom. Apart from a shaky Min Soo Kim, the men mostly acquitted themselves well vocally. In the cast, Koreans played the eastern oriental characters, while Western performers covered the roles of the Western countries' ambassadors. Ho Jin Yun's direction was especially effective for the ensembles, often the weakest link in a big production. Miking was good, and the English surtitles came thick and fast for those wishing to follow all the text. Because of the projection screen's high position of the, seating in the rear orchestra or the rings is preferable to front orchestra.
As might be expected, the Korean-American community was heavily represented in the audience. They enthusiastically greeted each number and rose to their feet to applaud the stirring finale.
With its excellent presentation, the show is suitable for all ages and especially for those interested in exploring all facets of musical theatre. Running time is about two and a half hours Reviewed 8/16/97