The musical style K-pop is enjoying incomparable success on the global stage, but “KPOP” on Broadway is just getting started. The original musical from creator Jason Kim and the troupe Woodshed Collective is the first of its kind — an unabashed celebration of the sonic world of South Korea-bred pop. K-pop, which has existed for decades, takes aural notes from hip-hop, disco and traditional Asian folk, but in recent years the electronic dance beats heard from groups like Blackpink and BTS have dominated worldwide charts and become synonymous with the genre. The cast of “KPOP” includes many real-life stars of the titular industry (affectionately called “idols”) who appear alongside trained theater performers. This results in a high-octane but jarringly uneven final product that is further hurt by Kim’s rudimentary book. Fortunately, the music revives this dying party.
In “KPOP” — now running at the Circle in the Square Theatre — MwE (played by real-life K-pop superstar Luna) is the golden girl of RBY Entertainment, a fictional producing agency which takes acronymic inspiration from South Korea’s nonfictional “Big 3”: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. Combined, these idol-pumping juggernauts have a market capital value in the inconceivable billions. The fabricated RBY is producing a showcase that will stream to American audiences. MwE (like the sublime triple threat portraying her) has trained for cross-continental success since childhood.
After a decade of military-style training under the watchful eye of icy manager Ruby (understudy Marina Kondo at the performance I attended), MwE has reached a mental breaking point. Her culminating scene eventually places her at a crossroads: Does she continue to withstand manipulation by the RBY powers-that-be or does she retreat to a “soft, quiet life” with her arbitrarily-introduced-in-Act 2 lover Juny (Jinwoo Jung)? This attempt to unmask a more ornery side of the hit-making business is contradicted, however, by the musical’s other characters.
While MwE hesitates to perform in the showcase, two other key agents in Kim’s story — girl group RTMIS and boy band F8 — do everything in their power to keep it going. Rabidly desperate for success, they glorify perfection over all else. Here is where the subplots of “KPOP” invalidate one another: Whatever lesson MwE’s fatigue teaches us, the musical then asks audiences to ignore in support of the two groups. On top of this, Kim introduces Harry (a squirrelly Aubie Merrylees), an American director hired by RBY to bridge the gap between South Korean and U.S. audiences. Instead, Harry focuses his attention on exposing the cracks in RBY’s foundation, documentary-style, muddying the fictional artists’ big night as well as our opinion (the audience) on who the true enemy in “KPOP” really is.
Two Asian actors are listed as understudies for Harry, but with Merrylees (the sole white performer) in the role, Harry is a fast-walking, whispery-talking manifestation of the Western world’s intrusion on a distinctly East Asian strain of music. Case in point, English lyrics majorly compose more than a few of the popular K-pop songs climbing global charts. Composer-lyricists Helen Park and Max Vernon avoid that whitewashing mistake. The show’s songs seamlessly melt back and forth between languages. For English-only speakers like myself, missing words does not mean you miss the beat — director Teddy Bergman successfully instructs actors to relay the tone and objective of each song.
“KPOP” has the most electric original score on Broadway, warping together ambient soundscapes, heart-wrenching ballads and those signature reverberating beats. Luna, in particular, belts out most of the show’s more dramatic and a cappella numbers and handles the task with ease; she is a vocal acrobat leaping through Park and Vernon’s score. As an actor, she mines remarkable emotional depth from the hollow grounds of Kim’s script. The “KPOP” ensemble stirs to the voltaic music with expert precision, even though the Circle in the Square’s cramped space gives the 18 cast members (22 total, including swings) little room to work with. Scenic designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn morphs the arena into a small concert venue, rightfully equipped with blinding spotlights, locomotive stage platforms and trap floors. Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi’s costume design steeps audiences in a campy, coordinated aesthetic straight out of a K-pop music video, but also embraces Western street brands — I clocked Vans, Timbs, Converse Run Star Motion trainers and more on F8’s feet.
There is an ecstatic upbeat tempo to “KPOP.” Eighteen of the aforementioned 22-person ensemble makes their Broadway debut here, and even the worst of scripts cannot stop them from having a great time. Too much love and hard work envelops Bergman’s stage to not bop your head to the music or mimic dance moves from your seat. While discrepancies riddle the musical’s book and erase all potential for a transformative time, I’d instead advise to venture out in pursuit of an entertaining one. You’ll find that at “KPOP.”
“KPOP” opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.
Review photo: Matthew Murphy.
Creative: Conceived by Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim; Book by Jason Kim; Music by Helen Park and Max Vernon; Lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon; Music arranged by Helen Park; Musical Director: Sujin Kim-Ramsey; Directed by Teddy Bergman; Choreographed by Jennifer Weber; 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; Makeup Design by Joseph Dulude II and Suki Tsujimoto; Additional Visual Content by Seoyeon Lee and Kyusun Lee; Music Coordinators: Seymour Red Press and Kimberlee Wertz; Music Production Supervision: Matt Stine; Music Production: Helen Park; Earlier version produced by Ars Nova (Jason Eagan, Founding Artistic Director; Renee Blinkwolt, Managing Director); Earlier version produced in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective.
Produced by Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes.
Cast: Luna, 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, Kate Mina Lin, Aubie Merrylees, Min, Patrick Park, Zachary Noah Piser, Kevin Woo and John Yi.