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[Herald Review] Choi shines as Korean-American adoptee in ‘Airport Baby’ musical

A young Korean-American adoptee returns home for the first time in desperate search for his birth mother.

For musical director, conductor and actress Kolleen Park, the plot of her latest musical production “Airport Baby” may seem like an all-too-familiar tale. But add local musical actor Choi Jae-rim to the mix and the result is an unexpectedly moving portrayal of a troubled young soul. 

A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)
A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)

Following her role as a mother struggling with bipolar disorder in the Korean rendition of the off-Broadway musical “Next to Normal,” Park has stepped downed from the stage and returned to her directorial role in one of Daehangno’s newest musicals, “Airport Baby.”

In a brilliant move, Park snagged Choi -- her “Next to Normal” costar -- and cast the 30-year-old in the lead role of Korean-American Josh Coen, a role he plays to near-perfection.

The musical is a comical yet hard-hitting look at international adoption, a controversial social issue in Korea. Coen is an adoptee who leaves his home in Atlanta, Georgia to come to Korea in search of his birth mother, and goes as far as appearing on a TV show in hopes of tracking down his family.

The musical’s writers Jeon Su-yang and Jang Hui-sun were inspired to write the script in 1989 by a program dedicated to helping adoptees reunite with their birth parents.

A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)
A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)

Right from the start, the musical sets the tone for its approach to the sensitive subject matter, opening with the first number “Airport Baby.” And with lyrics such as, “Here it is, the country where I was born, the country that threw me away” and “Since I was a kid, I thought I was born at the airport ... shipped off like cargo,” the production does not shy away from the character’s deep-seated struggles as an adoptee.

Other numbers such as “I will wait, I will wait, I will,” “No Heaven for Me” and “Why?” conveyed Coen’s pain to the point that sniffles filled the theater and tears streamed down the faces of a few audience members.

Choi’s portrayal of a Korean-American who struggles with the language and cultural differences was enough to see why he was the perfect fit for the role. His vocal range and fortitude were haunting throughout -- a far higher caliber of talent than is typically found on the stages of the youthful theater neighborhood of Daehangno.

Although the musical definitely has its fair share of tear-jerker moments, it also includes a number of laugh-out-loud moments, especially with the introduction of Delia, a cross-dressing, homosexual barkeep in the foreigner-heavy neighborhood of Itaewon, and his group of gay friends. 

A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)
A scene from director Kolleen Park’s lastest musical production, “Airport Baby,” which is being staged until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. (Seensee Company)

Along with its main subject of adoption, the musical spotlights the country’s still widely held social prejudice against homosexuality, as well as raising issues related to drug abuse.

While some people from the West may feel the story line skirts the line of being prejudicial, showing the American character as pot-smoking Westerners who only feel comfortable when seeking refuge in Itaewon, it doesn’t cross the line of offensive.

“Airport Baby” is being staged daily until March 6 at the Art One Theater in Daehangno, Seoul. Ticket prices are 40,000 won ($32) to 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 577-1987.

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)
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