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From Korea With Love

The award-winning musical Maria Maria offers an unusual take on the story of Mary Magdalene.

By New York City
Hyo Seong Kang in Maria Maria
(© Joa Musical Company)
Hyo Seong Kang in Maria Maria
(© Joa Musical Company)
When Chris Yongseok Choi first heard West Side Story, he wouldn't have disagreed with either Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim that "the most beautiful sound I ever heard" was "Maria, Maria." Now, Choi believes that the most beautiful sound he's ever heard is Hye Jung Yu and Gyung Chan Cha's score to Maria Maria, the Korean musical that he and Jack M. Dalgleish have imported here for a commercial run through October 15 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. (The show is also part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.)

This doubly-named Maria, though, has nothing at all to do with either the Sharks or the Jets. Instead, it's concerned with Mary Magdalene. As Choi explains in excellent English, "In Maria Maria, the Romans ask Mary to seduce Jesus. In return, they'll send her to Rome, where she can escape her life of poverty and prostitution. What she finds is that she can't seduce Jesus, who just won't have her that way. That's when she begins to see Jesus as divine, and her interest in him switches to a purer one. Now the Romans want to murder her for betraying them."

Dalgleish got involved after Choi came to see his production of Zanna, Don't! Off-Broadway in 2003. Choi wanted the rights to produce the gay-themed musical in Korea, and will now do so in 2008. But the two producers got friendly, and soon Dalgleish was in Seoul to lecture Korean artists and businessmen on how to develop musicals. Then, in January of this year, he saw Maria Maria and thought that New York should see it, too. "Maybe all of America, if we can arrange a tour," he says. "There are many Korean-Americans around the country."

Some may be surprised to learn that a Korean musical has a Christian theme. "Many don't know that Korea is a heavily Christian country. One-third of the population is Christian," says Choi. Adds Dalgleish: "This show will remind many of Jesus Christ Superstar. It's got a pop score, but it has a Korean flavor to it. And it will be sung in Korean, with English supertitles shown on each side of the stage."

This isn't Choi's first foray into Christian theater. He co-produced Children's Letters to God Off-Broadway in 2004. However, in Korea, he has mounted Assassins and Man of La Mancha. Choi, whose introduction to musical theater was Little Shop of Horrors at the Orpheum in the 1980s, says "If I could go back in a time-machine, Pippin would be the musical I would most want to see." Given that he couldn't do that, he decided to see it another way: by producing it. Nevertheless, Choi says his biggest hit to date is I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.

Of course, neither he nor Dalgleish would mind if Maria Maria could eclipse that hit. At a cost of $250,000 -- or 265,000 Korean WON --they've brought this show with its 25 member cast to the states. Sounds inexpensive, no? Explains Choi, "We don't do open-ended runs, but play only a few months in Seoul before we move to other cities, so budgets can't be that high, because you otherwise would never be able to make the money back." Choi adds that one thing about producing in Korea is exactly the same as producing in New York: Raising money isn't easy. Like their American counterparts, Korean producers go to corporations, record companies, friends and relatives, all in hopes of creating a viable limited partnership.

Although star Hyo Seong Kang won the 2004 Korean Musical Award as Best Actress, she'll rotate performances here with two other Marias. One is the single-named Sonya, who has quite a pop following in her native land, and the other is Gain Choi. But, in a manner of speaking, there's a fourth Mary Magdalene on hand, too: Bok Hee Yoon, who portrays a Blind Woman who is cured by Jesus. She portrayed the controversial lady when Superstar opened in Korea in 1979. Yoon remembers the protests that Christians raised against the work (just as they did on 51st Street in 1971, when the show had its world premiere at the Mark Hellinger). On the other hand, Maria Maria opened without any picket signs or shouts. "The world changes," she says with a shrug.

While Korean productions of American musicals have been staged for decades -- Bok Hee Yoon played the title role in Peter Pan, which Choi saw as a little boy -- Choi reports that The Phantom of the Opera was responsible for an unprecedented wave of interest in the art form. "Most of our audience consists of people in their teens and 20s," he says. "Theatergoers in their 40s and 50s are quite rare." But he's hoping that that changes in 20 years. "We're expecting that the young people who are going now will still want to go in their 40s and 50s, and will bring their children," he says.

Maria Maria was definitely a commercial, for-profit production in Korea. Just like many American shows, it started small, but moved to a bigger venue when business warranted. And how did the Korean critics take to it? No one can say for sure. "In Korea, we really don't have critics," says Choi. "We have reporters who come and write features before or after the show opens. They may put in a line or two when they liked something, but they don't write what you think of as reviews."

However, Yoon reports that contemporary Korean audiences are much like contemporary American ones in that they applaud and scream after each number they like, and even sometimes stand when a song concludes. Standing ovations at the end of a show are quite common, too. Some of the cast admit that they're frightened to face American audiences, while others are looking forward to it. "Maybe," says Yoon, "we'll be able to get the Americans to applaud and stand, too."


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