KPOP, the wildly (and loudly) entertaining immersive theater piece offering the audience a tour of a Korean pop music factory, begins and ends with 15-minute concerts by the Korean boy group F8 and girl group Special K, dressed in Olympic-style jumpsuits or sexy black leather outfits, as well as the solo artist MwE, clad in sultry gowns.
What may be most impressive about their energetic performances, complete with synchronized gyrations beneath a disco ball or behind dramatically billowing stage smoke, is that everything about them – including all 23 songs they sing – was created, a la The Monkees, just for this show.
Click on any photograph by Ben Arons to see it enlarged and read the caption
KPOP is the result of a collaboration between three remarkable New York theater companies – Ars Nova, best-known for having developed the groundbreaking Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812; the Ma-Yi Theater Company, which for three decades has explored issues of identity and assimilation through original work by Asian-American artists; and The Woodshed Collective, a company whose explorations of the outer limits of site specific theater included an amazing show called Empire Travel Agency, a kind of on-the-town spy-murder mystery that took place in such venues as an abandoned building and a speeding car.
The DNA from each of these combines in this novel creation, which takes over the entire new non-profit performance art complex A.R.T./New York Theatres to recreate the new American outpost of an ambitious Korean music label.
Now, you needn’t know anything about the phenomenon of the South Korean music industry – not even that Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was for years the most watched video on YouTube, with more than 2.8 BILLION views. (It’s still the second most watched, surpassed only by American rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again”)
ndeed, as if to reassure us, even our host admits: “With the exception of Psy , I have never, in my life, listened to a single KPOP song. I don’t even know what Gangnam is.”
That’s Jerry (James Seol), a California-born Korean-American who (much to the irritation of several of the performers) doesn’t even speak Korean. Ruby and Jae Tak Moon (Vanessa Kai and James Saito), the owners of the JTM record label, have hired Jerry to help KPOP “cross over” to the American market. We the audience have been invited to their KPOP factory to serve as a focus group to help them figure out how to make this happen.
After the opening concert, we are split into separate groups depending on the color of the wristband each of us had been given when we checked in (and subdivided and reunited throughout the two and a half hours of the show.) We are guided through room after room, up and down stairs (be forewarned), to learn about what it takes to produce the music; to listen to musical numbers inserted somewhat willy-nilly; and to witness lots of personal drama.
We meet what in the program are called the judges, who perfect the raw talent of the performers –the vocal coach (Amanda Morton) to improve their singing; the in-house plastic surgeon (David Shih) to improve their looks; the dance master (Ebony Williams). They are harsh, controlling taskmasters all. “We built you this factory, from scratch,” Moon says to his performers at one point. “We’re not asking for much in return. All we want is for you to be perfect.”
We enter the sumptuous boudoir of MwE (stand-out Ashley Park, one of the stars in the recent revival of The King and I). MwE is a fur-clad, dewey diva with a sense of style and entitlement that rivals Miss Piggy’s. We are encouraged to ask “pre-approved” questions (handed out to select audience members in advance); the first one is “why are you so beautiful?”
MwE answers: “Because of my fans.”
But there is tension between her and Ruby, and, after MwE sings some of her hits, the scene ends with an awkward meeting between her and the younger Sonoma (Julia Abueva). MwE is just 26, but it is made clear that Ruby views her discovery, whom she’s known since the age of 10, as approaching senility. The scene is funny, entertaining, and a tad melodramatic, but there’s also a glimpse of the pathos of MwE’s life.
Those of us in the gold group wear wristbands with the name of one of the five members of F8. Mine is Bobo (John Yi) and he brings about ten of us into his dressing room to talk about his life — he grew up with a single mother whose interests were only God and music, and those are his as well – and to sing a song for us. He tells us that Jerry fired four of the original band members, and hired Epic six months ago, presumably to make F8 more palatable to an American audience, and their forthcoming The Amerika Album (“The K is for Korean.”) It seems clear that Bobo is not crazy about Epic.
Soon Bobo brings us into a room with the other band members, who, it turns out, like Bobo, also dislike the new member Epic (Jason Tam, a Broadway veteran best known for his roles in Lysistrata Jones and If/Then.) Epic had a Korean mother but an American ex-military father, and he doesn’t really speak Korean. They are annoyed that Epic has recorded his verse for their new song in English. Everybody else has sung it in Korean. (It’s worth pointing out that most of the songs we hear are indeed in Korean.) Led by Oracle (Jinwoo Jung), they draw a literal line in the middle of the room, demanding that the band members – and the audience members – choose sides. “My country was divided in half because of people like you,” Oracle says, as he takes a little Korean flag out of his pocket.
There are more dramatic confrontations, such as a fleeting scene that suggests an extramarital affair between a member of the boy band and a member of the girl group, and a climactic encounter between Moon and Jerry. If all this drama seems perhaps less than strictly plausible for a single visit, that is unlikely to spoil the fun that comes from Jennifer Weber’s athletic choreography, Gabriel Hainer Eansohn’s inventive scenic design, Helen Park and Max Vernon’s original music, and the simple joy of being ushered around in a masterstroke of coordination.
Korea is of course prominently featured in the news lately, which adds a little frisson to the stated mission of the KPOP owners — “to launch rockets into the American market.” By the end of KPOP, one suspects that this is not a mere coincidence, when Epic sings in one of the few English songs, during that final exciting concert:
While your Prez is trolling Twitter (what?)
Our rockets explode glitter (Hella ya!)
And we’ll send a global message full of love.
KPOP is on stage at A.R.T./New York Theaters (502 West 53rd Street, between 10h and 11th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10019) through October 7, 2017. (I’ll be shocked if it isn’t extended.)
Presented by ARS NOVA
In association with MA-YI THEATRE + WOODSHED COLLECTIVE
Conceived by WOODSHED COLLECTIVE + JASON KIM Book by JASON KIM
Music & Lyrics by HELEN PARK + MAX VERNON
Immersive Design by WOODSHED COLLECTIVE Production Design by GABRIEL HAINER EVANSOHN Costume Design by TRICIA BARSAMIAN Lighting Design by JEANETTE OI-SUK YEW Sound Design by WILL PICKENS Projection + Video Design by PHILLIP GULLEY Casting by HENRY RUSSELL BERGSTEIN
Choreographed by JENNIFER WEBER Directed by TEDDY BERGMAN
ASHLEY PARK as MwE JAMES SAITO as Moon VANESSA KAI as Ruby JAMES SEOL as Jerry
JULIA ABUEVA as Jessica/Sonoma KATIE LEE HILL as Tiny D DEBORAH KIM as XO
SUN HYE PARK as Callie CATHY ANG as Jin Hee SUSANNAH KIM as Mina
JASON TAM as Epic JINWOO JUNG as Oracle JIHO KANG as Lex JOOMIN HWANG as Timmy X JOHN YI as Bobo
EBONY WILLIAMS as Jenn AMANDA MORTON as Vocal Coach (Yazmeen) DAVID SHIH as Plastic Surgeon (Dr. Park)