In the early 1930s, the Japanese Imperial Army began setting up an extensive network of military brothels that it operated both in Japan and throughout the nation’s ever-expanding occupied territories. Euphemistically referred to as “comfort stations,” one of the official justifications for their existence, especially after the Nanking massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) was to reduce the number of random sexual assaults Japanese soldiers committed by, in effect, systematizing their brutality. The women, many of whom were not yet past adolescence, largely came from the empire’s subjugated populations, often lured away from their homelands with false promises of legitimate work, if they weren’t just outright kidnapped.
Some of this information, as well as other appalling details, preface Comfort Women: A New Musical, an attempt to bring wider attention, scrutiny, and outrage to historical events that certainly demand all of the above. Unfortunately, as the show’s jarring subtitle indicates, its creators have made a fundamental error by choosing the wrong theatrical form for their painful subject matter.
Initially set in Korea, a colonial possession of Japan from 1910 to 1945, the show opens with a young rabble-rouser (Ben Wang) trying to stir up grass-roots resistance to his country’s foreign masters, which quickly lands him in trouble. After he’s arrested, his sister, Goeun (Abigail Choi Arader), desperate to earn bribe money to secure her brother’s freedom, accepts an offer from the obviously reprehensible Mr. Komino (Sam Hamashima) to sail to Japan for a well-paying factory job. But, of course, Goeun, along with the other women Mr. Komino recruits, never make it to Japan; instead, they’re sent to Indonesia, where the Japanese Imperial Army is waiting to turn their dreams into a living hell.
In telling the rest of this shattering story, the creators of Comfort Women, inexplicably, rely heavily on musical theater conventions that result in wrongheaded, if not downright offensive, choices. The most cringeworthy is the choreographed sequence of a Korean woman being gang raped by Japanese soldiers. At some point, in their effort to visualize this atrocity, director Dimo Hyun Jun Kim and choreographer Natanal Hyun Kim should have realized that they were, in fact, trivializing it.
Also requiring mortifying mention is the inclusion in the show of an Indonesian errand boy (Mathew Bautista) who sings about his mistreatment as if he’s auditioning for The Music Man. The character is apparently supposed to be comic relief, which, of course, leads to the salient question, “Why on earth would anyone think that a story about comfort women requires comic relief?”
Admittedly, if not for the context, the song Bautista performs could be considered the show’s best, but, given the quality of the rest of the score, that is incredibly faint praise. Composed by Bryan Michaels and Taeho Park with lyrics also coming from Michaels, the score is a mix of forgettable melodies and trite words that, in particular, fails to offer any insight into the female characters or their suffering. It’s actually so generic that it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine some of the songs being recycled for use in another thoroughly insipid score.
As for the book, which is credited to Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, Osker David Aguirre, and Joanne Mieses, its shallowness becomes increasingly obvious as it goes along, with subplots existing more to fill time than anything else. The most mind-numbing involves a Japanese sergeant (Kenny Mai) trying to win the approval of his domineering father/commanding officer (Matthew Ting). Given the surrounding horrors, for which the latter man is directly responsible, there is no way this testosterone-ridden confrontation could matter less.
Another character, a conflicted Korean soldier (Matheus Ting) serving in the Japanese Imperial Army, is more interesting. But he belongs in another story, preferably one that doesn’t include singing.
Script and score aside, Comfort Women is fairly well-produced, with effectively understated sets from Stella Hyun Joo Oh, some inventive costumes from Lucius Seo, and expressive lighting and sound design from Byung Chul Lee and Tae Jong Park respectively. But, ultimately, it’s all in the service of a show that required much more thoughtfulness.
Comfort Women: A New Musical (through September 2, 2018)
Dimo Kim Musical Theatre Factory
Peter Jay Sharpe Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.dimokimfactory.org.
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission