Friday, July 27, 2018

53 (2018-2019): Review: COMFORT WOMEN: A NEW MUSICAL (seen July 24, 2018)

"The Musical That Could Go Wrong"

When you think about it, calling a show Comfort Women: A New Musical is not so far away from “Springtime for Hitler,” the parody title Mel Brooks gave his show within a show in The Producers. What next, Slavery: A New Musical? Genocide: A New Musical? And Comfort Women is by no means a parody; it’s a heartfelt attempt to dramatize a significant historical tragedy. It’s also a regrettable misfire.
Sam Hamashima, Abigail Choi Arder, Jack Vielbig. Photo: NK KIM.
The night I went, a couple of unexpected events proved more dramatic than the show. The first happened about halfway through, as I and, I’m sure, others were feeling ever more uncomfortable in response to the clumsily earnest proceedings. Suddenly, a middle-aged man a few rows in front of me passed out. Immediately, his female companion started screaming his name and shouting for help as she struggled to revive him.

Of course, his physical condition surely had nothing to do with the show—or, at the least, wasn’t helped by it—but the house manager and staff rushed in, the show was stopped, and attempts began to assist the gentleman. After nearly 25 minutes, EMS guys arrived, escorted the poor fellow, now feeling a tad better, out, and the audience was told it would take another 10 minutes before Comfort Women resumed.

I have no idea why we had to wait so long after the man had left. Last year, something similar happened, not once but twice, while I was watching the Broadway revival of Carousel, the details of which can be read here. Those incidents were handled with remarkable alacrity, unlike the situation at Comfort Women, but the different response times is surely related to the easier access provided to a Broadway orchestra than to the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, located on the fourth floor of Playwrights Horizons. Still, the show should have been ready to go at the crack of the whip and not to have forced the audience to wait another 10 minutes before resuming.

Then came incident number two. Several scenes later, a scenic mishap occurred involving a wooden wall that slides out from stage right to represent the background to a Japanese general’s office. Essentially, given the minimalist style of Stella Hyun Joo Oh’s scenery, composed mainly of wood-slatted walls with doorways that open in a variety of configurations, it isn’t really necessary; perhaps the director will wisely cut its use from subsequent performances. The mishap happened when the wall was supposed to retract but refused to do so, bolloxing up what followed as actors and crew tried their best to push it back offstage. When they finally succeeded, the audience applauded.

As for Comfort Women, it’s a sincere but problem-riddled attempt to put on stage the horrific story of the euphemistically named “comfort women” (ianfu 慰安婦 in Japanese) the hundreds of thousands of women who were deceived or outright kidnapped from their Korean towns and villages (Japan had occupied Korea since early in the century) to be sold into sex slavery for the “comfort” of the Japanese military during its campaigns throughout Asia. When the existence and extent of these operations was widely disclosed in the 1980s, it stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy between Japan and Korea that the Koreans believe has not yet been satisfactorily resolved by its former occupiers.

Comfort Women, by the way, is not really “a new musical.” It was presented at St. Clement’s in 2015, although no professional reviews appear on It has music by Brian Michaels and Taeho Park, lyrics by Michaels, a book by Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, Osker David Aguirre, and Joann Malory Mieses, direction by Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, and choreography by Hyun Kim.

The work’s promotional material declares that the production, a product of the Dimo Kim Musical Theatre Factory, is “the first ever all Asian Off-Broadway cast led by an East Asian director.” To which one might ask, what about China-born Tisa Chang, director of numerous Asian-American casts at the Pan Asian Repertory? Or Tisa Chen? 
Chloe Rise, Roni Shelley Perez. Photo: NK KIM.
A cast of two-dozen Asian-Americans—uncommonly large for Off Broadway—of numerous ethnic backgrounds (mixed and otherwise) plays the many characters, some portraying multiple roles. The action depicts the ways in which women were taken from their families and hometowns, how they were transported to Indonesia, the cruel conditions they lived in, and their abusive treatment (including branding) by the countless soldiers they serviced.

It also presents a melodramatic plotline in which a Korean sergeant in the Japanese army named Minsik Lee (Mattheus Ting)—given the Japanese name Nakamura—befriends a woman called Geoun Kim (Abigail Choi Areder) and participates in a plan to help her and her friends escape. This puts him in conflict with a Japanese sergeant, son of General Hiroshi (Matthew Ting), who also has problems with his father.
Roni Shelley Perez (center), Sarah States (upper left), Chloe Rice. Photo: NK KIM.
The episodic plot—running from 1942 to 1945—is something of a mishmash. It includes pistol-to-the head executions, choreographic interludes of soldiers fighting, sometimes with incongruously decorative umbrellas subbing for rifles, and dance episodes featuring the women, one of them using simulated versions of the long sleeves worn in traditional Korean dance. The scattershot sequence of scenes is often weakly integrated, and long, static passages with little dramatic progress are frequent.

Musical numbers sometimes evolve more or less organically from dramatic situations and others appear stuck on, like the comic (in theory, at least) sequence featuring an Indonesian boy named Nani (Matthew Bautista) singing in a ragtime-sounding song about his family laundromat. (This may be a new addition as I can’t find it in the press script, where Nani sings about something else.)
Matheus Ting, Jake Vielbig. Photo: NK KIM.
A superior score would have helped, but, except for a moment here and there, the music is barely tuneful, ranging from bland songs that sound like faux-operatic efforts in the Les Miz mode to generic pop-oriented numbers, not one of which conveys a Korean or Japanese feeling. Given the excellence of much modern Korean and Japanese music this is a major drawback. And I’m not talking about K-Pop or J-Pop. At the same time, several scenes forget they’re part of a musical and lack even the underscoring heard in others. Finally, too many lyrics are bogged down in clunky, pompous verbosity, as here:


Perhaps the greatest problem is the cast, an eager but largely inexperienced and versatility-challenged group of young actors who appear more like a group of college students than a company of professionals. Despite their Asian-American backgrounds, their speech and behavior weigh more heavily on the American than the Asian side of that equation. Now and then, a professional-sounding singer can be heard (mainly on the distaff side), but the overall quality of the acting is amateurish, serving only to make the characters more overtly stereotypical while emphasizing the inadequacies of the writing.

Comfort Women serves a useful purpose in seeking to find the theatrical means to explore the ramifications of a significant modern problem reflected in the ongoing worldwide practice of sex trafficking, a connection we must, of course, make for ourselves. But good intentions and a worthy cause are cold comfort for audiences seeking something more than these inadequate theatrics.


Peter Jay Sharp Theatre/Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 2