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Art-house musical offers realism by the glass

2010/12/05 | 346 views | Permalink | Source

Left, Kim Hyung-jun, a member of the K-pop band SS501, performs in the original musical "Cafe-in", which runs at the Baekam Art Hall, southern Seoul, through Jan. 23. Right, a scene from the two-man show revolving around the growing love interest between a sommelier and a barista.
/ Courtesy of SH Creative Works

By Ines Min

While the word musical might most often inspire images of glamorous, large-scale productions on Broadway, those smaller art-house productions are able to produce the emotionally dense intimacy others seek. The Korean original "Cafe-in" fulfills the latter, as a clever romantic comedy proving its lasting power with the start of its second season late November.

The tongue-in-cheek "Cafe-in" progresses through a string of steady plot devices, props, and just enough self-aware humor, wrapped up into its 100-minute, two-man package. The story follows the playboy sommelier Jung-min as he enters the life of broken-hearted, workaholic barista Se-jin, playing the double-agent role of geeky dating coach and suave prospect.

The musical first debuted in 2008, but saw its revival this August with actor Kang Ji-hwan producing, hit creative duo director Sung Jae-joon and music director Won Mi-sol ("Music in My Heart"), and Broadway-veteran composer Kim Hye-young. After a brief, hallyu-centric Japanese run, in which Kang also acted, the Korean return saw the inclusion of a new face: SS501's Kim Hyung-jun.

The K-pop star's musical debut has been met with some criticism, but Kim (Jung-min/Ji-mi) performs with an earnest sincerity that equally falters his character on stage and bolsters a budding actor's fresh take. Starring alongside Woo Geum-ji (Se-jin), whose booming vocals shake the small hall of the theater and the hearts of those watching, Kim's confidence seems to rise as the play progresses.

Starting off with promptly breaking the fourth wall, Woo sets the pace with a lighthearted capriciousness — underlined by the darker, lonely heart cynicism of a woman dumped — of an early riser barista with a penchant for "Love is..". maxims on a display blackboard. Full of energy and extremes, Se-jin expresses her frustration by shouting out the backdoor in a thunderous yodel perfectly mirrored with a flickering spotlight.

The use of emotional asides and melodramatic lighting are well placed comedic hooks used throughout the storyline, epitomized in the horrorstruck or gloating expressions of Kim (though at times, his conversation with the audience feels all too real, a need to interact with his K-pop fans as opposed to a musical viewer).

A true runaway hit song seems to be missing throughout the production, but the best candidate would be the samba-inspired dance duet between Jung-min and Se-jin that comprises their first face-to-face interaction. The smooth sommelier enters the coffee shop as an "innocent" patron, in order to observe this oddball barista and woo her with his charms (a battalion of girlfriends has led to an additional cell phone and names matching wines).

The power dance marks the lines of the two actors' roles: Se-jin the unexpected aggressor and Jung-min is both frightened and a little intrigued by this beast of a small, cute female. While Kim's tenor sounds nice as a studio voice, it mostly serves as support to the rich range found in Woo's more experienced talents.

The birth of the dating coach arrives when Se-jin returns to the cafe in order to confront the cheeky sommelier who has been messing with her "Love is" board. In order to keep up his prank as the wooing customer, Jung-min finds a disguise as his alter-ego, and adds another layer to the joke by offering his romantic advice.

Though each scene provides a near audible click of the plot gears moving forward and the ending all but known by the midway point, a surprising realism found in the light poking of contemporary social addictions smoothes over any total predictabilities. Coach Ji-mi provides real-time dating advice via video phone, as Jung-min ducks behind potted plants to don his fake glasses and buck teeth and fervently whispers the next song: "Relax, relax!"

However, those words of advice might best be directed toward Kim himself. An anxiety manifests itself through his gestures — which seem to be stuck in a constant act of reaching for his pockets. The realistic interactions between the sweet Woo and the nervous, but promising, Kim will satiate audience members, but it is the strength of the story itself that acts as the saving grace.

Kim Tae-han and Shin Eui-jung ("Goong") are the couple for the show's other performances, with Kim having performed in the original two years ago. SH Creative Works' "Cafe-in" runs through Jan. 23, 2011, at the Baekam Art Hall in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul.

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