, a rising icon of the Korean entertainment industry, is setting a new standard with his captivating acting in a transgender musical "Headwig and the Angry Inch", sparking what is called "Cho Seung-woo
"Headwig", which is being performed at the Live Theater in Seoul, features three other actors for the title role on a rotational basis, but the tickets for Jo's show are the most popular, some of the sold-out tickets circulating at twice the original price on an online auction site.
Some fans arrive at the theater three hours ahead of the official schedule and spend time talking about the show. Thanks to Jo's popularity, more than 80 percent of the tickets for the early weeks of May have been sold.
Cho takes on the role of a transsexual rock singer in the Korean version of the popular Off-Broadway musical - a demanding job since it involves high-powered rock music and a drastic change of persona for the actor.
in the Korean version of a transgender musical "Headwig and the Angry Inch"
The main character, an East German man, undergoes a sex change operation in a bid to marry an American solider but gets ditched by him and becomes a rock singer.
Of course, a portion of people who watch Jo's shows are familiar with not only the critically acclaimed musical but also the silver screen version which was released in August 2002. The film, marking directorial debut of John Cameron Mitchell, has spawned a host of Korean fan clubs.
Music-wise, "Headwig" does not allow the main character to relax even for a minute. "Unlike other rock musicals, 'Headwig' features real rock music and it's quite difficult to get it right", said Song Yong-jin
, one of four actors for the musical and a vocalist of rock band Sigolband.
When Jo sang major scores like "Tear Me Down", "Sugar Daddy", "Angry Inch" and "Wig in a Box", fans - many of them are women in their 20s - did not hide their excitement, reacting enthusiastically in the 200-seat theater.
Jo's ability to dominate the stage was also impressive. He made the audience laugh out loud by shouting like a lady who gets embarrassed about her hair in front of a mirror. He drew attention to his (or her) body by saying "My body lines are a real art", exuding his feminine mannerisms and behavior.
Before the audience knew it, however, Jo changed the gear swiftly and accentuated the theme of the musical through a long tearful monologue. With Jo's charisma shining throughout the 110-minute show, there was no time to think about anything else except for the musical's portrayal of anguish and yearning for the origin of love.
Toward the end of the show, Cho, dripping with sweat, did not confine himself to the stage; he jumped down to the audience area, interacting with people in a peculiar way that explores the theme of rediscovering the lost identity.
The highlight came with the ending that symbolically involves two tomatoes - a prop for turning Jo into a perfect woman - and the audience got another boost as Jo and the Angry Inch Band sang the main songs again.
Jo's transformation in "Headwig", however, is hardly surprising. In "Running Boy" ("Marathon"
in Korean) - a film based on a true story about an autistic young man who communicates with the world through a marathon - showcased Jo's versatility.
His superb acting in the film won praise from critics, and "Running Boy" sold more than 5 million tickets, becoming one of the two major Korean hit films together with "Public Enemy 2"
amid a dearth of Korean blockbusters in recent months.
Critics are quick to point out that Jo's popularity is solidly based on his serious efforts to refine and perfect his acting. He also won the Best Leading Actor award last year at the 10th annual Korea Musical Awards for the lead role in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde".
Jo's stardom is also inspiring other musical actors. Last week, Park Gun-hyung, an emerging musical actor who played the title role for "Saturday Night Fever" last year, made a silver screen debut in "Innocent Steps
", a melodrama featuring top teen actress Moon Keun-young.
Other musical actors like Kang Ji-hwan
made inroads into the television soap opera genre, showing off their versatile talent.
But Jo's hardcore fans and some critics said he differs from other actors, especially when it comes to the "Cho Seung-woo
syndrome". The predominant male star images in the domestic entertainment sector are associated with success, love, sexuality and colorfulness. Dandy metrosexual stars like kwon Sang-woo
, Jo In-sung
and Gang Dong-won
represent the trend.
But Jo looks somewhat fragile and soft compared with other top actors. But his strength lies in his positive and refreshing image, which is deeply linked to his roles that range from an innocent boy in love with a girl to a man struggling to find the meaning of a chaotic life and turbulent history.
Although the May 11 performance will be the last one featuring Cho, "Headwig" will run through June 26 with other high-powered actors. Tickets are 30,000 won to 40,000 won. For further information, call (02) 3485-8740.
By Yang Sung-jin