This new musical takes audiences on a tour of a Korean pop music factory.
Korean pop music has gained a global audience in the last decade, but with the exception of Psy's 2012 hit "Gangnam Style ," it has yet to make a dent in the American market. Why? That question is central to the new musical KPOP, which is now making its world premiere at A.R.T./New York Theatres in a coproduction by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Woodshed Collective. As that mouthful of coproducers might indicate, KPOP is gigantic. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious off-Broadway musical of the year, with pulse-quickening tunes, innovative staging, and just a little bit of disappointment.
K-pop is a catchall term for pop music produced in South Korea. The magpie genre borrows elements from everywhere to create a globally appealing sound. The up-tempo choruses arrive like a shot of adrenaline. It's the type of music that you are likely to hear on a dance floor or while impulse-buying an armful of V-necks. Composers Helen Park and Max Vernon re-create that magic with their irrepressible pop score, which will have you dancing through much of the show. And really, if you're going to be on your feet for the majority of a two-hour-30-minute show, you might as well be dancing.
Book writer Jason Kim and director Teddy Bergman not only show us what K-pop is all about, they take us inside, transforming A.R.T./New York into a K-pop music factory called JTM Entertainment. The record label was founded by Jae Tak Moon (James Saito) and his wife, former pop star Ruby (Vanessa Kai), with the goal of "launching a rocket into the American market." They've brought on Jerry Kim (James Seol) of Crossover productions (responsible for internationally successful brands like Shakira and IKEA) to help guide them on their journey.
As we tour the building, we meet JTM's three biggest acts: girl group Special K, boyband F8, and solo artist MwE (Ashley Park). The girls contend with the rigors of JTM's musical boot camp, complete with its own in-house plastic surgeon (David Shih). "There's a saying in Korea," President Moon tells us as we watch Special K rehearse: "Practice for years, and if you're lucky, you might obtain imperfection." The boys bicker over their sound, which Oracle (a severe Jinwoo Jung) insists has become less Korean ever since Korean-American Epic (Jason Tam) joined the band. Meanwhile, MwE confronts the fact that at 26, she's rapidly aging out of the industry. Her hostility toward Ruby goes from thinly veiled to unadulterated as we observe from the periphery. While we're constantly reminded of the Korean emphasis on perfection, we see very little of it here.
There's no musical without conflict, but Kim is unfailingly heavy-handed in his approach, underlining each important issue with a thick red line: The Special K segment is about the commodification of the female body; F8 considers the role of race and culture; MwE shows us how the needs of an artist often take a backseat when that art is a commercial brand. Unfortunately, it never amounts to a satisfying explanation for why Americans turn their noses up at such dynamite pop acts.
The archetypes Kim employs to introduce his themes are similarly expected: There's Ruby as Tiger Mom, the tough-but-compassionate African-American choreographer (an intimidating Ebony Williams), and Jerry, the soulless consultant. None of them ever get a chance to break out of these roles, which only reaffirms our initial impressions.
Luckily, everyone in the cast is very good at playing their parts. Kai has a threatening smile that could pierce armor. Tam plays Epic like a more adorable version of Justin Timberlake. Joomin Hwang brings a compelling swagger to the role of bad boy break dancer Timmy X. As MwE, Park gives the most fully human performance of the evening (partly because her character is written that way), going from ice-cold diva to a lonely and terrified young woman. Her achingly genuine performance of the ballad "Bung Uh Ree Sae" is one to remember.
In looking back on KPOP, audiences are most likely to remember Gabriel Hainer Evansohn's heroic set design, which transforms every inch of the space into a Korean Brill building. We traipse through offices decorated with transparent plastic furniture and dance studios that smell of fresh paint. Every other wall is festooned with some piece of pop propaganda featuring our artists' smiling and airbrushed faces. Tricia Barsamian's costumes are similarly impressive, especially her meticulous attention to footwear (these kids wear some cool kicks). Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting offers plenty of surprises, while sound designer Will Pickens does an excellent job of mixing prerecording music and live vocals in a variety of spaces. Bergman breaks us into ever-smaller groups for a more intimate experience; some lucky audience members even get one-on-one time with the artists. Everything comes together for a final concert that has everyone dancing and singing along.
KPOP is great fun and will probably create a bunch of new fans. Still, that won't do much to move the needle for Korean pop music in the States. For better or worse, K-pop will remain (alongside Kylie Minogue and the Eurovision Song Contest) a boutique act for Americans looking for an international cultural experience delivered via lowbrow music. This show is an excellent place to find them.