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[Herald Review] Musicals that are treats for the ears, feasts for the eyes

By Park Ga-young

Published : Jan. 28, 2023 - 16:01

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With production companies and audiences moving past the pandemic, musicals are returning en masse.

"West Side Story," the 65-year-old Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein romp, the Asian premiere of "Moulin Rouge!" and more Sondheim in the dark tale of London's murderous barber, "Sweeney Todd" are among those warming up the cold winter season.

There was a time when someone who had watched a musical on Broadway would be excited to see it in South Korea, only to be disappointed at the quality of local productions. However, those times are long gone. From actors' performances to stage designs, audience members will almost forget that they are watching a local production.

"Moulin Rouge!" (CJ Entertainment)

'Moulin Rouge!'

The Asian premiere of "Moulin Rouge!" -- backed by South Korea's biggest entertainment company CJ -- is dazzling beyond compare, from its remarkable stage design to the array of adapted pop music.

There isn't a typical raising of the curtain to mark the beginning of the show. Instead, you are invited to take a peek at the backstage of this musical within a musical 10 minutes before it starts.

As the audience observes the dancers' seductive moves, the musical seamlessly begins with the familiar tune of "Lady Marmalade."

Along with “Lady Marmalade,” a 1974 song included in the original movie version of the musical, about 70 songs including those by Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce, Adele, Rianaha, Sia, Britney Spears and Elvis Presley are reborn in this musical. It took the jukebox musical nearly a decade to get the rights to use all the songs.

The musical version of "Moulin Rouge!" -- inspired by the 2001 hit film directed and produced by Baz Luhrmann -- was unveiled on Broadway in 2018, and is still attracting audiences.

The Korean production features two male actors for Christian -- well-known musical actor Hong Kwang-ho and Lee Choong-ju, who marks his first lead role with this musical.

Playing the role of the female lead Satine are Korean singer-turned-musical actress Ivy and Kim Ji-woo, a familiar face from the small screen. The two actors manage to convey Satine's seductive glamour and charm.

For diehard fans of the movie, the musical version doesn’t disappoint -- albeit with an updated soundtrack.

One of the only downsides, however, is that the audience is probably too familiar with the songs in the musical in their original English form, and it requires a bit of an adjustment to warm up to their Korean versions. Some of the songs’ original emotion may inevitably get lost in translation.

"Moulin Rouge" runs until March 5 at Blue Square in Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Kang Pil-seok (left) plays Sweeney Todd and Jeon Mi-do plays Lovett in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (OD Company) Kang Pil-seok (left) plays Sweeney Todd and Jeon Mi-do plays Lovett in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (OD Company)

'Sweeney Todd'

American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” surprised the musical industry with its unexpected themes and dissonant melodies.

Set in 19th century in England, the story revolves around a barber whose life is turned upside down when an evil man, who happens to be a judge, becomes infatuated with his wife and devises a plan to take his wife and daughter. The barber is left helpless and kicked out of his city. He later returns as the vengeful Sweeney Todd.

For this third revival of the Korean production, Jeon Mi-do returns as Lovett, Todd's partner in crime.

Jeon, a seasoned musical actor, first appeared as Mrs. Lovett in 2016, a role for which she won best actress at the Korean Musical Awards in 2017. She is now a household name after appearing on the hit 2020 TV drama series "Hospital Playlist" as the tone-deaf Chae Song-hwa.

Sweeney Todd is played by Kang Pil-seok, Shin Sung-rok and Lee Kyu-hyung -- all of whom are top actors both on stage and on TV.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" runs until March 5 at Charlotte Theater in Songpa-gu, Seoul.

"West Side Story" (Shownote)

'West Side Story'

Sondheim's first work is also returning to the Korean stage, with its fourth local run. Sondheim, who died in 2021, launched his career by writing the lyrics to "West Side Story," which had its second movie adaptation shortly after his death and its first Korean performance in 2007.

The musical returns with a new production company, which has preserved Jerome Robbins' original choreography while incorporating new technologies like LED displays for the set design.

The romp through electrifying Latin American rhythms and jaw-dropping dance fights is revived in this local production. The musical features three top musical actors -- Kim Jun-su, Ko Eun-sung and Park Kang-hyun -- in the role of Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff.

Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks – the Jets’ rival gang. The story, inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," is a familiar one. What makes it a special and enduring musical production and film is the music by renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein. It is delightful to listen to songs delivered in the voices of Kim, Ko and Park, who each play Tony in their own unique style.

The ensemble of "West Side Story" took home the best ensemble award from the 7th Korea Musical Awards ceremony on Jan. 16.

“West Side Story” runs through Feb. 26 at the Chungmu Art Center in Jung-gu, Seoul.