Pageantry is the keynote for the new Korean musical epic “The Last Empress,” presented in a special one-week engagement at Lincoln Center. Visually stunning, with an abundance of extravagant costumes, imaginative sets and spirited choreography, the production is marked by naive (however pleasant) musical themes.
Apart from a precipitous second-act stall, the narrative explores a narrow chapter in turn-of-the-century Korea that holds its own fascination. The Chosun dynasty, founded in 1392, began to crumble when in the late 19th century foreign powers sought commercial privileges and Japanese leaders pursued control and threatened Korean independence. The tale’s compelling centerpiece is Queen Min (Wonjung Kim), a woman of humble origin who, as the protective and influential wife of the indecisive King Kojung (Hee Sung Yu), faces a turbulent power struggle. Internal revolts mar the queen’s attempt to Westernize her country, and a Japanese minister, finding her an obstacle in his plans for control, instigates her assassination.
As a musical entertainment, the show displays Western influence, and Broadway comparisons are inevitable. While lacking the sophistication of “Pacific Overtures,” the sting of “Miss Saigon” and the historical controversy of “Evita, ” there is still much to admire. The music carries a sweet, genteel flavor, with some dramatic percussive accents. The lyrics, sung in Korean, are accessible through broadly displayed English supertitles above the proscenium.
Korean craftsmen have probed the machinery of Broadway musicals in a heady attempt for commercial success. They have succeeded in part. The choreography by Byung Goo Seo offers an exhilarating balance of grace and fury highlighted by merchants and villagers engaging in a vigorous marketplace brawl, a stately banquet ceremony and a militant sword dance. Most feverish is the shaman (Hyun Dong Kim) in a mystical ritual performed to insure the birth of an heir to the throne.
The elaborate costumes (numbering 600) are dominated by gold and bright reds with colorful fans and ribbons as accessories, while the stylized sets include a particularly vivid effect of tall masted ships with actors in swaying crows’ nests. Director Ho Jin Yun has staged the show with a shrewd eye for splendor, from a lavish coronation to the inevitable bloody palace murders. One is not likely to remember the music, but the eyes have been fully enriched.