Sung Hwa Chung (center) and company
in Hero: The Musical
(© Kwan-Hee Ryu)
Sung Hwa Chung (center) and company
in Hero: The Musical
(© Kwan-Hee Ryu)
Commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Korean national hero An Chunggun's 1909 death, Hero: The Musical, currently at the David A Koch Theater, is a literally flag-waving musical about an historic incident leading to Korea's 1945 independence from Japan. The anthem-heavy production should appeal to Korean ticket buyers gratified to witness a story they've likely known since childhood as brought resoundingly to the stage. But it could be a very different matter for others to whom the information is new but the derivative manner in which it's offered is as familiar as an Andrew Lloyd Webber opus.

The undisputed, not to say lionized, hero of Hero, An Chunggun (Sung Hwa Chung) achieved his status when in 1909, he broke through security and landed seven slugs in the body of visiting, supposedly conquering residence general Ito Hirobumi (Sung Gee Kim). The political act was the culmination of careful planning by an insurgent group Chunggun organized and resulted in his arrest and -- despite his maintaining he was a prisoner of war -- ultimate hanging as a common criminal.

Leading to the shooting, An Chunggun in this version associates proudly and dangerously with restaurateur Wangwei (Eui Uk Jeong) and his sister Lingling (Mi Do Jeon), as well as Sorhui (Sang Eun Lee), a witness to the murder of Korean Empress Myeongseong in which Hirobumi is assumed to have had a hand. All three characters, shown as martyrs to their cause, are drawn as composites of those who lent hearts and minds to independence.

Composer Sang Joon Oh, composer-lyricist A Reum Han, and director Ho Jin Yun have quite deliberately decided to approach the musicalization of this story by adapting conventions of Western examples with unalloyed fealty. Most noticeably they've dipped into Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's Les Miserables (strong echoes of which are heard lurking in the score's chord changes), Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Assassins and even Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme and Tosca, among other internationally known predecessors.

The cast's performances of this muscular musical material, tightly conducted by Moon Jyung Kim, are undeniably effective. Leading man Chung is not only handsome as a fairy-tale prince, he's got a rocket-propulsion baritone. Yes, time and again he's required to sing agitprop sentiments of the sort that go "each must walk the appointed path" and call for his extending one arm in supplication to higher powers. Nevertheless, even as the contents of the tunes wear thin, he doesn't.

Also on hand is a squad of Ran Young Lee-choreographed dancers -- the women at one instance displaying fan-manipulation facility and the men frequently showing off well-drilled athletic prowess.

The performers are matched by a physical production in which Dong Woo Park's fluid scenery, Ji Yeon Kim's costumes, Yun Young Koo's lighting, Do Kyung Kwon's sound, and Kwang Nam Park's special effects (projections abound) easily rise to Broadway standards.