Photo by Anne Fishbein

When The Last Empress made the move from Korea to Lincoln Center in 1997, its star of two years, Seokhwa Yun, assumed she would reprise her title role. She never had a chance — the Seoul-based producers of this poperatic historical extravaganza knew they wanted a New York performer with a more tutored voice to play Min Ja Young, the Hermit Kingdom's last queen. They gave the part to Juilliard-trained Tae Won Yi, a strikingly beautiful woman, now 37, who speaks Korean more easily than her fluent English, having moved to America when she was 15. Besides appearing in classical-music recitals, Yi had turned in strong work as Lady Thiang in regional productions of The King and I.

“There was some kind of fight between the actress and the producers,” Yi diplomatically tells the Weekly, leaving to our imagination the screaming that might have followed that little Green Room meeting.

The Last Empress opens this week at the Kodak Theater. It is a mostly Western-style musical in the Evita tradition that concerns a commoner who married into Korea's ruling Yi Dynasty at a time of growing friction between Japan and China. For a woman in 19th-century Asia, Queen Min displayed surprising independence and vision — inviting Western doctors and missionaries to the royal court, while contemplating an alliance with Russia, Germany and France. Regional realities prevailed, however, and she was forced to seek military help from China, a move that led to her 1895 assassination — committed, the musical claims, by Japanese samurai.

The touring show, which ran here briefly at the Shubert four years ago, has enjoyed mostly favorable notices, although it suffered some of Britain's iciest weather in the form of London critics, who blasted its pop-mimicry.

“There are echoes of Western musicals,” wrote The Guardian's Michael Billington, but the show “seems to be based on the principle that 'Anything you can do, we can do worse.'”

In one sense, Empress represents a new twist on non-traditional casting American-style — an Asian story that uses only Asian performers. In another, the depiction of Queen Min as a nationalist heroine is the kind of partisan interpretation of history that Americans tend to label propaganda when they find it in foreign works. Still, Korea's own attitude toward the queen has until recently been marked by considerable ambivalence.

“She's well-known, but not famous-famous,” Yi says. “In school we only knew her as King Kojong's wife. The impression we got was that she was an unpleasant woman, but now we see that she was smart and wise. The first thing the Japanese did was murder her — their code for the assassination was the Fox Hunt.”

Yi immediately won accolades as Queen Min and has stayed with Empress' strenuous international and Korea tours since landing the role, perhaps feeling special empathy for the monarch.

“She and I have a lot of similarities,” Yi says. “I'm a commoner myself. Queen Min portrays herself as a strong-willed woman, but inside she's very soft. She did not have good health and lost a child. I learned that I could not have children and was in a depression for two years. I can understand her.”

Today Korea is experiencing an explosion of imported American musicals, including Urinetown, Guys and Dolls and 42nd Street. Yi, who moved back to Korea two years ago following a divorce, is part of this phenomenon and at the moment is preparing to play Donna in the ABBA-powered musical Mamma Mia! She now finds, following her long American detour, her Korean career on stage and TV taking off. Looking back, Yi judges her New York audiences to have been the warmest, though Londoners, unlike their city's theater critics, appreciate suffering when they see it.

“Last year in London,” Yi recalls, “in the scene in which I get killed, the sword actually hit me, and I have the scar . . .” Here she shows discolored skin in the webbing between two fingers. “It made a really big sound. I couldn't scream and I couldn't sing. I was bleeding and didn't have time to cover it. It hurt so much I was kneeling and crying. The audience really loved it.”

The Last Empress is being performed at the Kodak Theater, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., through May 4. Call (213) 365-3500 for tickets and information.

LA Weekly