‘Jack the Ripper’ strikes again

A wildly successful Korean musical returns

by Lindsay Nelson

“I’m a huge Beumrae fan,” the woman seated next to me gushed during the intermission, pointing to a glossy photo in my program. “His voice gives me chills.”

Makiko, as I’ll call her, was seeing this production of “Jack the Ripper” for the fourth time. And though she claimed she wasn’t a “superfan” of Korean music and drama, she could trot out detailed pedigrees of every actor in the program — especially Kim Beumrae, the incredibly deep-voiced star in the title role.

Makiko’s companion, Junko, was very much a superfan who personified why the “Korean wave” is such big business in Japan and across much of Asia. She’s been to South Korea multiple times to shop and see concerts by K-pop supergroups. And she, like millions across the region, also swoons over Korean TV series and adores music by bands such as Super Junior and F.T. Island.

But K-wave isn’t confined to Asia, as Korean films and music are making headway in the United States as well. In 2012, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was the first music video to top a billion YouTube hits, and Park Chan-wook’s famed 2003 movie “Oldboy,” based on a Japanese manga, has just been remade by Spike Lee. Overall, a recent Financial Times report valued Korea’s cultural exports in 2012 — mainly movies, TV shows, comics, computer games and music — at $4.8 billion, up from $2.6 billion in 2009.

Having made such a mark in those fields, stage seems a natural K-wave adjunct, and the success of “Jack the Ripper” bodes well for future forays into musical theater.

Originally a successful Czech production, “Jack the Ripper” was first adapted for the Korean stage in 2009. It was wildly popular, thanks in no small part to a cast featuring K-pop stars including Super Junior’s Songmin and F.T. Island’s Seunghyun, along with a posse of TV and movie actors.

The show premiered in Japan in 2012, and it did so well that it’s now back for an encore run at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama.

The plot is inspired by the story of Jack the Ripper, the London serial killer of the 1880s who was never caught. But it also mixes in themes from fictional tales such as “Jekyll and Hyde” (by Robert Louis Stevenson) and “Frankenstein” (Mary Shelley). And naturally there’s a love story. There’s also a cocaine-addicted police officer, a reporter who’ll do anything for a scoop, a prostitute with a heart of gold, an innocent young doctor — and of course the title character, who’s portrayed as more of a sexy showman than a sadistic murderer.

As expensive, visually lavish musicals go, there’s nothing particularly interesting or new about “Jack the Ripper,” though it’s polished and fun and could easily compete with shows on Broadway. The singers are talented, the tunes are nicely arranged, and despite the story being basically ridiculous, it is occasionally engaging as well.

Indeed, even in the midst of its sad love songs and mostly predictable plot twists, I was briefly moved in the second act, when jaded prostitute Polly and her equally jaded former lover sing about dreams that could have been. (I’m guessing this was a favorite with others, too, judging by the outbreak of sniffles around me.)

But the bottom line here are the performers — specifically the male ones, who are all veterans of Korean soap operas, films, stage musicals and pop music.

In Japan, middle-aged housewives have tended to be in the vanguard of K-wave’s fans. It was they who dubbed Bae Yong Joon, the star of “Winter Sonata,” a Korean TV drama screened here, “Yon-sama” (using the suffix “sama” to signify high status and great respect) — and it was a crowd of 4,000 of them, too, who stormed the airport when he visited Japan in 2004.

Consequently, Korea’s domestic economy has also received a significant boost from Japanese fans going to Seoul to shop and visit locations where “Winter Sonata” was filmed. Some Japanese women have even sought out matchmaking services to help them find their own “Yon-sama.”

It follows that the audience for “Jack the Ripper” was very female-heavy — to the point that the first-floor men’s restroom had been temporarily converted for women’s use. In fact, among around 1,000 people filling the place, I saw perhaps a dozen men. Even though most musical-theater audiences skew female, they don’t usually do so as dramatically.

When asked about the appeal of male Korean stars, female fans often cite qualities perceived to be lacking in Japanese men: sensitivity, gentleness, passion, generosity. Like many other Korean stars, the male cast members of “Jack the Ripper” all looked fairly young and feminine: smooth faces, perfectly styled hair, petit physiques and stylish costumes.

Watching the show amid all those adoring fans, I couldn’t help thinking of Takarazuka, a home-grown mainstay of over-the-top musical theater whose cast members are exclusively women — and which is kept afloat by legions of devoted female fans. Those women also regard their idols (generally actresses assigned roles as dashing young men) as having qualities Japanese men lack — adding, in this case, that the’re better than “real men.”

In fact, I realized, both Takarazuka performers and male cast members in “Jack the Ripper” shared an ethereal, not-quite-human look. Both exist in a realm of fantasy — one which, in the case of “Jack the Ripper,” seemingly moved an audience of adult women to all start screaming at the top of their voices when the show was over.

Then, as each actor came on stage to sing a final verse and take a bow, the screaming and the clapping built and built. When one actor spoke briefly in Japanese, the shrieks became truly deafening. And when it was all over, the audience went on clapping for a solid five minutes. Announcements of “The show is over, please exit the theater” were made over the loudspeaker three times before they gave up and began filing out of the doors. Makiko and Junko giggled excitedly next to me, wondering whether to see it again.

It’s doubtful that “Jack the Ripper” will appeal to many people who aren’t fluent in Japanese or Korean, except perhaps the most ardent K-wave fans. Even Makiko and Junko said they’d studied the script in detail to avoid having to rely on the Japanese subtitles projected on either side of the stage.

For those who do go, though, “Jack the Ripper” is a fascinating window into the world of diehard K-wave fandom, and may even be a glimpse into a future of worldwide dominance for Korean musicals. Just be sure to take earplugs for the curtain call.

“Jack the Ripper” runs through Nov. 30 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre, Yokohama. For tickets and details, visit www.jack-the-ripper.jp.