KPOP Book by Jason Kim. Music, lyrics, music production, and arrangements by Helen Park; and music and lyrics by Max Vernon. Direction by Teddy Bergman. Choreography by Jennifer Weber. Music Direction by Sujin Kim-Ramsey. Scenic design by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn. Costume design by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi. Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Hair and wig design by Mia M. Neal. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II and Suki Tsujimoto.
Musical theatre aficionados keeping score will be able to check off several boxes as they follow the show's three separate narrative strands. First, Jason Kim's book presents in flashback the rise of K-pop superstar MwE (Luna, who is a bona fide K-pop star from South Korea). As a child, MwE dreams of making it big, and her manager/ surrogate mother Ruby (Jully Lee) is determined to launch the plain-girl-with-a-killer-voice into the pop stratosphere.
Ruby's own performance dreams were destroyed by the cruel twists of show biz, and as if channeling Madam Rose from Gypsy, she tells MwE, "You could be better than me, better than I ever was. You could be the first woman on the moon. The very first person, like us, on the moon. You're the one, MwE. Take us to the moon." Later, she tells her, "I got to live, too. Through you. I just wanted you to be as good as I could have been." In another Gypsy echo, the teenage star contemplates abandoning it all to live a normal life with her Tulsa, here called Juny (Jinwoo Jun). It comes as little surprise to know what she chooses in the end. (Spoiler: It isn't her not-so-Dainty Juny.)
The next strand involves the performers of the boy band F8. Not unlike the guys from Jersey Boys or Ain't Too Proud, the onstage harmony belies the offstage tensions and fighting. Compounding the friction is a documentary filmmaker, Harry (Aubie Merrylees), who is chronicling the group's American debut. Harry has a way of needling the young men as he tries to get them to reveal the individual dramas behind the band members' unified façade. Assuming a Zach-like persona from A Chorus Line, he manipulates them to expose their inner thoughts and feelings. For instance, he tells the newest member of the boy band, Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), that he wants to divulge the unvarnished lives of the K-pop stars, to "show everybody what really goes on behind the scenes. So talk to me. What's going on, Brad?"
Finally, the girl group, dubbed RTMIS, could be the K-pop version of the Dreams from Dreamgirls. Fame may have its costs, which are paid for by not being able to see families for years on end and forgoing intimate relationships, but in the end the sacrifices are worth the potential glory. When things look particularly bleak, one of the girls reminds the others: "Hey! What are you all doing? You all climbed Everest to be here. We are just beginning! We're not at the finish line, we're at the starting line."
KPOP was last seen in New York five years ago in an immersive production by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Woodshed Collective. In that version, audiences were divided into small groups as if part of a focus group and escorted from room to room as they watched the performers endure brutal rehearsals, bicker amongst themselves, and, ultimately, put on a stunning show. Most of the soapy plot points, as well as the message that K-pop performers are machines built through inhuman training and rigorous discipline, remain. And rather than choreographing the audience through the various spaces, Gabriel Hainer Evansohn's sliding, sinking, and elevating set pieces, Peter Nigrini's evocative projections, and Jiyoun Chang's dazzling (and sometimes blinding) lighting move the action and the sedentary spectators swiftly from place to place.
Under Teddy Bergman's direction, the show is in constant motion and the performers make use of the entire theatre, but the book scenes are flat and uninvolving. The characters are show-biz archetypes, albeit placed in a milieu in which most Broadway regulars (or at least this one) are unfamiliar.
For this reason–and I can't believe I am writing this–I would have preferred a K-pop revue without the strained narratives. In the concert numbers, the performers are electrifying, and they elicit earned shrieks, squeals, and thunderous applause from the notably young and Asian audience members. Helen Park's and Max Vernon's songs are silly confections that thankfully are accompanied by loud electronic music, so you don't end up with an ear worm consisting of a lyric like, "This is my Korea/ This is my story-a/ A new category-a/ To make you dance and clap your hands."
Wearing Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi's appropriately gaudy, garish, and fabulous costumes, which include glittering bodysuits, playful dominatrix attire, faux military uniforms, MwE, RTMIS, and F8 put on a sensational show, particularly in the 15-minute finale. Jennifer Weber's thrilling choreography incorporates all the shakes, pops and thrusts one associates with the genre.
KPOP will not go down in the Broadway annals as a groundbreaking, or even a very good, musical. But when the company sings the final song, "Blast Off," you may realize that you're having too much fun to notice–or care.