“We sing together, we dance together, we look sexy together,” says Timmy X. This may be a succinct description of the Korean popular music phenomenon known as K-pop in general, but in any case it neatly sums up most of what happens — and much of what’s appealing — in “KPOP,” a show on stage at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater. Right after Timmy X (Joshua Lee) says this, he and the seven other members of the boyband known as F8 sing and dance and look sexy together in the electrifying “Amerika (Checkmate)” (see video below), one of the show’s eighteen original high-energy musical numbers, sung in English and Korean.
I loved “KPOP” when I saw it five years ago Off Broadway, but the “KPOP” on Broadway is not the same show as the one in 2017, even though it has the same title, the same book writer and songwriters (and many of the same songs), the same director and choreographer, even the same storylines. It’s still exciting, sometimes thrilling — but it’s a packaged entertainment rather than an adventure in theater.
The 2017 “KPOP” was an immersive theater piece that took over the entire A.R.T./New York building on West 53rd Street to simulate a Korean pop music factory. The premise of the musical was that the owners of the record label, intent on breaking into the American market, were taking the audience (potential American investors?) on a tour of the stages, rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms of the factory. Divided into small groups, we went from room to room, watching the stars perform, overhearing their complaints and arguments backstage, and witnessing their interactions with their keepers and taskmasters, including a vocal coach to perfect their singing; a dance master to perfect their dancing, an in-house plastic surgeon to perfect their looks. “We built you this factory from scratch,” one of the owners told his charges. “We’re not asking for much in return. All we want is for you to be perfect.”
On Broadway, the audience stays put. The factory tour is gone, as is the in-house plastic surgeon. The new version hasn’t abandoned a framing device, but it’s a weaker one (and less fun): A film crew is shooting a concert documentary as the performers prepare for a one-night only concert in New York, with an obnoxious American director named Harry (Aubie Merrylees) causing friction and trying to sneak in some candid footage. “KPOP” now feels less like a musical about the people and process behind the Korean music industry, and more like a K-pop concert. The show seems aimed primarily at (current or prospective) K-pop fans, with amped up production values, tight synchronized dancing, flashy lighting, constant colorful costume changes, all the outsized effects you’d expect from a stadium pop concert (a sign outside the auditorium warns of “strobe lighting, lasers, smoke and haze effects.”) The score by Helen Park (Broadway’s first Asian American woman composer) is generally tuneful, but often feels in service to the staging: It’s the pulsing, the dancing, the design that transfix.
Admittedly, turning a cutting-edge immersive theater experience into a loud commercial K-pop concert probably makes sense practically and economically if you’re going to move to Broadway, especially since there are many more K-pop fans in the U.S. than there were five years ago.
A tip-off to the shift is that the central character of MwE, the K-pop star, is now portrayed by Luna, who is an actual K-pop star, “best known as the main vocalist and lead dancer of the K-pop girl group f(x) who act as inspirational leaders of contemporary K-pop,” as her playbill bio puts it. She is one of four actual K-pop group alumni in the 18-member cast, only a handful of whom are holdovers from the Off-Broadway production.
MwE, pronounced like a wet kiss, is the focus of the largest of the three plot threads in “KPOP.”
She has been training since the age of nine to be a star, pushed by Ruby (Jully Lee), the owner of her record label, which leads to MwE’s song “Windup Doll,” one of the few in the show whose lyrics have any connection to the stories being told. But now, after twenty years, she’s fed up; she wants her freedom; she storms off the stage; will she return in time for the concert? In flashbacks, we see just how much Ruby has tried to control her life. When MwE proposes marriage to her boyfriend Juny (Jinwood Jung), Ruby is outraged: “I thought you two were just childhood friends who hugged a lot. MwE, do you see this man? He is a civilian. You are famous.”
Ruby’s machinations are not limited to MwE. In the freshest of the three storylines, Ruby has kicked out Leo, one of the founding members of the F8 boyband, and replaced him with Brad (Zachary Noah Piser, who recently starred in Dear Evan Hansen.) Brad is American-born, which Ruby figures would help the band break into the American market. Brad is also of mixed race. It’s not completely beyond the pale to speculate that Piser may be serving much the same function in “KPOP” that Ruby intends for Brad: American-born and mixed race himself, Piser is the only performer besides Luna to get any solos (Luna gets four.) Piser’s is “Halfway,” which he makes the most of, but it is not about being bicultural. (“Can you meet me halfway, baby?/The more I hold you close you drift away.” ) With a personality that’s a flavorful mix of vulnerable and insufferable, Brad tries to curry favor with director Harry at the expense of his bandmates. All this irks them, especially Jun Hyuk (Kevin Woo), and they initially ostracize and undermine him. But they all work it out in one of the longer scenes in the show (not very long) – the one where Timmy X, playing mediator, makes the comment about how they are meant to sing and dance and look sexy together.
The third and least developed plot thread involves the new five-member girl group, RTMIS. We see them projected on screens one by one breaking up with (unseen) suitors, because they’re too busy aiming to be stars. (This is one example of the extensive use of video and project design, which, added to the flashing lighting, can make “KPOP” look like a game show.). The young women feel stressed both by Ruby, who threatens to take them out of the New York show “if you don’t fix yourselves,” and by MwE, because when she stormed off, she put their debut in jeopardy; if she doesn’t agree to perform, there will be no New York show
These stories are presented awkwardly, sometimes with confusing flashbacks, and mostly feel like filler between the musical productions. The cast is blameless. They are adept at handling the few moments of humor and the abrupt drama in these dialogue scenes. Luna, who has to carry much of the show, is a pro (a veteran of South Korean productions of such Broadway musicals as “In The Heights” and “Legally Blonde.”) But she and the rest of the cast unquestionably shine brightest in the musical numbers — so much brighter that one may question why the creative team didn’t just dispense with these largely cliched storylines.
If they are supposed to be offering us a glimpse of the culture of K-pop, or even more generally of South Korean culture, “KPOP” accomplishes this more effectively in its musical numbers, like “This is My Korea” and “Shi Gan Nang Bee ( 시간 낭비)” (which translates as “Waste of Time.”)
Update: KPOP will play its final performance on December 11, after 44 preview and 17 regular performances. Two hundred complimentary tickets are being offered to AAPI community members and youth for the final performance, followed by a panel discussion with top AAPI theatre artists. Panelists will include the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award, David Henry Hwang; the first Asian female composer in Broadway history, KPOP’s Helen Park; Korean playwright Hansol Jung; and actor Pun Bandhu.
Circle in the Square Theatre
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission
Tickets: $104.50 to $248.50
Book by Jason Kim; music, lyrics, music production and arrangements by Helen Park; and music and lyrics by Max Vernon.
Directed by Teddy Bergman, choreography by Jennifer Weber
Music direction by Sujin Kim-Ramsey.
Scenic design by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, costume design is by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Peter Fitzgerald & Andrew Keister, projection design iby Peter Nigrini, Hair & Wig Design by Mia M. Neal, Makeup Design by Joe Dulude II & Suki Tsujimoto,
Cast: Luna as MwE, Julia Abueva, BoHyung, Major Curda, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, Amy Keum, James Kho, Marina Kondo, Eddy Lee, Joshua Lee, Jully Lee, Lina Rose Lee, Timothy H. Lee, Abraham Lim, Min, Kate Mina Lin, Aubie Merrylees, Patrick Park, Zachary Noah Piser, Kevin Woo, and John Yi.
Photos by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman