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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Last Empress
by Lizzie Loveridge

The Korean musical The Last Empress comes to London for sixteen performances. It is a flagship on a cultural mission to awaken Londoners to Korean culture. As it is a vehicle to promote international understanding through creative exchange, I shall review it positively. The subject matter is a wonderful story, based in historical fact on the nineteenth century struggles for power in the Far East between the Imperialist powers of Japan, Russia, Germany, Britain and France. Caught up in this was the nation of Chosun, now roughly the boundaries of the two Koreas. Queen Min (Tae Won Yi) was influential as astute advisor to her husband, the king of Chosun, Kojong (Seung Ryong Cho) in resisting Japanese domination. It cost her, her life. She was assassinated by Samurai warriors in her palace.

There are already two Curtain Up reviews from my colleagues, David Lipfert and Les Gutman who saw the show in New York. Links here The Last Empress and Second Thoughts on The Last Empress. The show is a costume spectacular with beautiful sets and exquisite traditional costumes. It has much to make it the Korean Les Misérables, a historical story of revolution and oppression, a sung through musical with clear lyrics and the swirling turntable set changes. The music may sound derivative and Western but it is tuneful and there are some pretty ballads.

I thought that Tae Won Yi, a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, was exceptional. She is joined by some strong male singers. Hee Jung Lee brings a deep, resonating bass voice to the Regent who must come to terms with his daughter in law's reforming policy. I liked very much Min Soo Kim's General Hong, Min's faithful soldier. Seung Ryong Cho replaces the New York King Kojong and I suspect is more effective in the role. The children are delightful, both the pompous little Crown Prince (Jong Yoon Song) who makes a tragic end with his mother and the little girl (Yeseul Rhu) who sings about the late snow arriving and killing the cherry blossom, a metaphor for the political situation.

The lyrics in English, by Georgina St George, are a literal translation from the Korean. The rhymes rather simplistic and with no poetic value, but they do serve to explain the political complexities of Japanese expansionism. I liked the ceremonial dances with amazing costumes danced by the women but also the dance of the Samurai with long curving swords. The parts of the European ambassadors and their wives are taken by Korean actors, the men's wavy haired wigs are incongruous and an overstatement.

Much of the makeup is strong in the Eastern tradition. Most of the staging is effective but occasionally misses as in the scene where the foreign ship captains are warned off. The finale is a huge procession of the dead (strains of Les Mis again) fully costumed, but all in a dramatic white with a stirring march affirming Queen Min's memory and concern for her people. The Last Empress will play in Seoul from the end of March and will be a part of the official cultural programme for the soccer World Cup later this year.

The Last Empress
Written by Mun Yol Yi
Composed by Hee Gap Kim
Lyrics by In Ja Yang/Georgina St George
Directed by Ho Jin Yun

Adapted by Kwang Lim Kim
Music Director: Moon Jung Kim
Additional music by Peter Casey/Georgina St George
Orchestration by Peter Casey/Stephen Coleman
Starring: Tae Won Yi, Seung Ryong Cho, Hee Jung Lee, Sung Gee Kim, Min Soo Kim/Bom Seok Seo
With: Yiju Song, Jun Ho Nor, Ki Soon Kim, Jung Hwa Choo, Hee Kyung Mun, Jung Wok No, Kyung Tae Kim, Hyun Tae Kim, Yong Beom Kim, Sand Hoe Park, Sung Won Oh, Soo Han Jeong, Jong Mun Lee, Jae Gu Lee, Ji Yeon Han, So Young Jeon, Hue Young Moon, Yu Lim Kwak, Yong Su Cho, Geun Yong Kwon, Joo Durk Kim, Jae Kwon Jang, Chi Young Shin, Hong Ick Kim, Suk Jun Bae, Gi Hong Lim, Kwang Ho Hong, Eun Jeong Cho, Jeonmg Eun Yang, Kum Sook Shin, Sun Hee Chang, Ji Won Sohn, Eun Sil Choi, Hee Joung Kim, Seung Ha Yun
Scenic Design: Don Woo Park
Costume Design: Hyun Sook Kim
Lighting Design: Hyung O Choi
Choreography by Byung Koo Seo/Hyo Seon Jang
An A-COM International production
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 606 3400
Booking to 16th February 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th February performance at The Apollo Hammersmith, Queen Caroline Street London W6
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