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A CurtainUp Review
Comfort Women: A New Musical

In the past 70 years, Korea couldn't get an official apology from Japan. I believe that our generation has a responsibility to remind the world of the distorted history of sexual slavery and human rights. But, sexual slavery is not just a political problem between Korea and Japan. It is a global human trafficking issue from other countries as well. Victims from World War II are still alive and what's most troubling is that it's still happening in the world. — Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, Director/Playwright/Executive Producer
comfort women
Chloe Rice and Roni Shelley Perez (photo: NK Kim)
In the midst of turmoil, it can be difficult to make decisions. Should you stay with the possibility of death or loss or do you follow the promise of a profitable job in another country? If you are living in a war-torn village, will leaving home help or destroy you? Decisions like this form the crux of drama. Intrigue heightens when the drama is based on truth and survivors remain to tell the tale.

At the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Dimo Kim Musical Theatre Factory presents the story of a group of young Korean women who faced such a dilemma during World War II. Few can deny the import of the experiences of these girls, some only teenagers, who became "comfort women" when they unwittingly stepped into lives of sexual slavery.

Comfort Women: A New Musical, takes place from 1942-1945 during World War II, as Korea yearns to escape the yoke of Japanese rule. Written by Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, Osker David Aguirre, and Joann Malory Mieses, the book is based on accounts by young Korean women.

Goeun Kim (Abigail Choi Arader) is one of several teenagers in her village approached by Mr. Komino (Sam Hamashima), a sleazy recruiter for the Imperial Japanese Army, offering them good jobs in a Japanese factory. While torn between leaving family and home, Goeun and the other girls agree to leave. They naively sign a contract with the Song Kyong Sugar Company and board a Japanese ship for Indonesia where they are thrown into a life of horror, pain and fear.

Goeum and the other girls are thrown into stark, dim wooden cells, intermittently dragged out to pleasure the soldiers in the military brothels. They are told: "Your bodies now belong to the Great Imperial Army. You are to allow our soldiers to enjoy their time with you, as a reward for the hard work they are doing. Number two: Respect your soldiers; do not fight back. Number three: Failure to follow steps one and two are an automatic death sentence."

On a minimalist setting by Stella Hyun Joo Oh, the story is largely sung-through to a score by Bryan Michaels and TaeHo Park. With dance routines choreographed by Natanal Hyum Kim, the violence of abuse, is enacted in movements of grace and subtlety, miming malicious attacks by soldiers on the screaming women. Trying to portray the violence subtly, an oxymoronic idea, blunts viewers from the horror of experiencing the victims' pain and also limits their sympathy. Waving scarves and graceful movements does not mollify the inflicted anger.

The music has a sameness making you wonder why this disturbing story must even include music. Park's melodies have no Korean or Japanese honorific and sounds like Western music. The lyrics by Michaels are simplistic, melodramatic and awkward: "Years I've stayed tired of fighting and frightened. There are two of us at first and there we were. And there we stood in the rain. In the rain the other fled, it's true the other die, you must survive."

More attention to differentiating the six captured women would better serve their terrifying ordeal. The cast has robust voices but the book demands screaming and hysteria more than acting nuance, preventing substantial characterizations.

On the upside, the large cast offers roles to many talented Asian actors. In the cast, there is some comic-relief in the jazzy song-and-dance rhythms of "Nani's Lament" sung by a young Indonesian boy (Mathew Bautista) who works for the Japanese higher-ups.

Abigail Choi Arader lends Goeun a strength and bravery as well as the heartbreak, loneliness and fear shared by all the women. They look to her for leadership. In the slight romantic plotline, Goeun meets Minsik (Matheus Ting), a sympathetic Korean -born soldier in the Japanese Army and friend of Matsui (Kenny Mai), son of the harsh stereotypical General Hiroshi (Matthew Ting). When Minsik offers Goeun a hope for escape, he is able to include the other women and creates a way to get them back to Korea.

Originally produced in 2015 at the St. Clements Theatre, Comfort Women: A New Musical tells a significant story that affected almost 200,000 women during WWII, leading to the survivors' shame, silence and sometimes suicides. Unfortunately, this lightweight production and musical score does not come close to packing the necessary emotional and dramatic punch.

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Comfort Women: A New Musical
Director/Playwright/Executive Producer: Dimo Hyun Jun Kim
br> Choreographer: Natanal Hyun Kim
Music Director/Arrangements/Orchestration: Tek Ggoo Kang
Cast: Abigail Choi Arader, Matheus Ting, Leana Rae Concepcion, Roni Shelley Perez, Kenny Mai, Ben Wang, Sara Elizabeth States, Emily Su, Chloe Rice, Shyan Yang, Sam Hamashim, Mathew Bautista, Matthew Ting, Tenzin Yeshi, Genevieve Shi
Set Design: Stella Hyun Joo Oh
Costume Design: Lucius Seo
Lighting Design: Byung Chul Lee
Sound Design: Tae Jong Park
Projections Director: Michael Redman
Production Stage Manager: Alexis Lee Nalbandian
Producer: Dimo Kim Musical Theatre Factory, Sejoon Oh, and Matthew Thomas Burda.
Running Time: One hour, 40 minutes. No intermission
Theatre: Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Theater Address: 416 West 46 St. (212)239-6200 Tickets: From $59
Performances: Tues.-Sat. at 7:30pm, Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2pm, Sun. at 7pm
Previews: 07/20/18. Opens: 7/27/18. Closes: 09/02/18.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 07/19/18

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