Monday, February 6, 2012

Caffeine: fairy-tale musical

For fans of syrupy love-themed Korean dramas, your dream musical is here once again.

Set in an intimate 359-seat hall, packed with humor and armed with a charismatic cast, “Caffeine” is set for another successful run on its hands, its third in two years.

Odd beverage-themed analogies, overly quick narrative jumps and forgettable opening numbers notwithstanding, the work makes it to the end in one piece, thanks to the easy-to-understand plot and the onstage couple’s inspired acting, singing and chemistry. The result is a light-hearted movie-like spectacle, an entertaining experience to be sure but without lasting impact.

“Caffeine” starts with Kim Se-jin, alternated by Yoon Gong-joo and Kim Ji-hyun, a 30-something female barista unlucky in love ― “the perennial second girl from the end,” or the last fling before the guys get married to someone else ― who is again turned down by a boyfriend. She avoids facing the music by working 15 hours a day, devoted only to work and sleep ― and nothing else. When her boss tries to spice up the joint by serving wine and thus hiring a handsome sommelier Kang Ji-min (played by Kim San-ho and Jung Sang-hoon), Se-jin becomes fixated on protecting her territory.

When Ji-min tampers with her most cherished property, her blackboard writings about the different interpretations of love, she waits for the moment to avenge this wrongdoing. As their shifts do not overlap, the sommelier decides to pull a prank; he shows up during her working hours and seduces her under a fictitious identity Jung-min. When she storms into the cafe during his shift the next day to confront the real Ji-min, he panics and disguises himself. He further develops his joke by becoming her confidant, advising her on a dating strategy with his other self.

Predictably, they fall in love; she falls right into the trap. When his deception is revealed, they briefly part ways. But the sorrow lasts about five minutes before they reunite for the final duet and the curtain call.

This sort of leap within the main plot is too choppy, which is ultimately the biggest problem of “Caffeine.” It is hardly a natural progression, for instance, that Ji-min would go to such lengths to avoid the confrontation with Se-jin because he would not know the great personal significance the blackboard has for her. The audience seemed perfectly happy to overlook these mistakes for the sake of fast-paced entertainment.

The loose chain of events comes as a surprise for a piece of work by local musical theater stars, lyricist Seong Jae-joon and composer Kim Hye-in. Seong also served as director. It must be said that the opening numbers by the two stars, separately, left something to be desired. Ji-min’s comparisons of women’s body shapes to a bottle of Bordeaux wine probably topped the list of cringe-worthy lines because it is a forced symbolism that just does not work. One could not imagine a less flattering compliment for a woman than being compared to a rather flat-shaped bottle.

Members of the particular audience at last Saturday’s matinee show, the great majority of which were women in Se-jin’s age group, did not mind at all, however, because the lead actors, Yoon (Mimi in “RENT,” and Ophelia in “Hamlet”) and Kim San-ho (Danny in “Grease”) were able to fill the cozy room with ample charm.

Especially Kim, who has built his fame and box-office power on a low-brow cable-TV reality series “Rude Miss Young Ae,” is a hidden gem, with uncanny magnetism and panache to develop a great career. His nimble movements, despite a very tall stature, were impressive and his singing, which has room to grow, was adequate. Yoon, with many leading roles under her belt, shone with her vocal ability and dramatic acting. It was a pity that her mostly one-dimensional character did not allow her to show off her true depth ― of which there were a few, greatly appreciated glimpses.

Veteran actor Jung Sang-hoon and promising actress Kim Ji-hyun play Ji-min and Se-jin, respectively, on alternate nights.

This is the third time the local production has been staged, this time by CJ E&M. After the first two well-received runs in 2010, it toured Japan. In previous promotions, it used the different English, spelling “Cafe-in.”

“Caffeine” continues through April 8 at the Culture Space NU in Daehangno central Seoul, Tickets cost 40,000 to 50,000 won. For more information, call 1577-3363.

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