The Last Empress
This epic musical from the East has arrived in London for 19 performances only. It is a big colourful show that boasts 600 lavish costumes and superb choreography, which includes the Flower Coronet and the Shaman dances. The scene design is masterful, especially the final scene which is so artistically beautiful, one could imagine it winning a Turner prize.
First seen in Korea in 1995, it was the first musical from the Orient to be presented on Broadway where it ran for two seasons at the Lincoln Center in August 1997 and 1998. It was also presented at the Shubert Theater Los Angeles in September 1998. This limited run at the Apollo Hammersmith Theatre in West London is prior to a season in Seoul at the end of March.
This true story tells the life of Queen Min, a charismatic woman in Korea's history during the Chosun Dynasty in the mid 19th century, who struggled to forge ties with Western nations in order to keep Japan at bay which led to her assassination at the hands of the Japanese samurai in 1895.
This is a sung through show, which includes elements from both opera and musicals. It can therefore be difficult at times to decipher what is being sung. And so it is essential to buy a program and read the full synopsis, otherwise you will have trouble following the story, as I did!! However, on reading the synopsis at the interval I derived considerably more satisfaction from the show in the second half.
Although I had trouble following the first act, I still found much enjoyment from admiring the talented 45 strong company in their dance routines performed in sumptuous costumes as the director Ho Jin Yun kept the show moving at a rapid pace from one scene to the next.
Tae Won Yi, who has recently played Lady Thiang in "The King and I” at the Palladium, gives a great performance as 'Queen Min'. She beautifully captures the dominating but caring nature of the Queen who is named ‘The mother of the nation’. She also has a terrific voice that she belts out! Unfortunately, most of the songs and music, whilst pleasant, are unmemorable. Not one song was outstanding, but nevertheless they were pleasing enough and worked well for the show. However, the music did not make me crave to run out and buy the CD!!
This is what the popular press had to say: NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A sumptuously staged, long-winded musical epic." He goes on to say, "The songs - all non-stop 60 of them - exude passion and drama, but lack tunefulness." MARK COOK for TIME OUT says, "The score..is on the bland side....Ho Jin Yun's direction is slick." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Hats off to a lunatic Korean extravaganza." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN was not impressed saying , "Life is full of mysteries. And one of them is what on earth this overblown Korean musical...is doing in downtown Hammersmith...The main problem is that, unless you are well up in 19th-century Korean history, it is incomprehensible. " RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "While The Last Empress takes itself very seriously, it has not seriously considered the requirements of a musical. This heavily political biography is complicated, shapeless and impersonal...."
This musical is full of energy and power and has a tragic and emotional ending that certainly makes it worth seeing.
External Links to full reviews from newspapers...