Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
There is nothing worse than going to a show and within the first minute you know what the entire plot is going to be. True, in classical works this is expected, but in a new musical like Comfort Women this knowledge sucks the air out of the play before it even officially begins. While understanding the topic of the piece can be informative, the play itself has to have something unexpected to happen in order to grab the audience. Unfortunately, this musical had few surprises in it which made it feel too familiar, which downplayed its impact significantly.
The show opens with some captions written across a screen, which gives too much away. Korean women were captured by the Japanese during WW II and forced to be sex slaves. The women bond together The play follows Goeun, one of the Korean women enslaved. She eventually meets Minsick, a Korean soldier who is serving in the Japanese army The two of them create a love story that is unnecessary and cliché. You can probably guess the rest of the story line as I did.
There are a few significant problematic moments in this show. One has to deal with the choreography. The actors seemed to be uncomfortable doing it and some were always a beat behind, throwing off the intended synchronicity. Most of the time the dancing seemed out of place and like it was just forced into the piece. The exception is when the actress playing Soonja sings “Butterfly in Moonlight”. During the number the ensemble uses white flowing fabric to make a picture of the girl as a butterfly. This moment was executed well and had intention,unlike most of the other choreography
Another detrimental area was the fight sequences. The stage combat was so fake that it made them seen laughable and took us out of the world of the play. Instead of enhancing the horrific nature of abuse that these women endured, it detracted from the situation and removed its efficacy. A more sophisticated approach to this area is needed to make it believable.
What saves this play is its talented cast, Abigail Cholarader plays Goeun and acts her butt off. She, almost single handedly, saves the shows from utter despair. Her piercing voice shine through and we can listen to her forever. She brings a sense of honesty that breaks through all the chaos unfolding around her. On the other hand, while not the strongest vocalist, Matthew Bautista adds much needed comedy to this dark world. What he may lack as a singer, is more than made up for in his acting chops.
While Comfort Women definitely has the potential to be a powerhouse, in its current state it is more like an attempt to replicate of Miss Saigon. There is definitely a story here that needs to be told, but it needs more originality before reaching its crucible.
Comfort Women plays now through August 9, 2018 at the Peter J sharp Theater 416 W 42nd St. http://www.comfortwomenmusical.com/