It’s So Adorable When Korean Pop and Broadway Collaborate: Harry, a filmmaker playing the bad guy in the loud yet scantily clad new musical “KPOP,” adds, “A lot of people come to these things and they don’t even comprehend the language.” So the question becomes, “What are they keeping an eye on?” Tiny, of the Korean pop trio RTMIS, responds, “Perfection, Mr Harry. OK?”
The Broadway production of the musical launched on Sunday at Circle in the Square, and it’s true that you’re likely to be among those cheering it if you love the precision-drilled dancing, careful melisma, and auto-tuned sentiments that have made K-pop a worldwide hit over the past decade.
Those who aren’t familiar with the genre or Korean will have a tougher time getting into it, and those who saw the vastly different and vastly greater Off-Broadway production in 2017 will be even less likely to enjoy this one.
The musical is more of an ear pounder than an eye opener for them, thereby smothering any pretence it may have had of being anything more than a simple spectacle. It can’t have been missed by the writers that they, like the characters in their play, met an untimely end when they tried to bring their Off-Broadway smash to a wider, more mainstream audience.
The novel “KPOP” by Jason Kim is set in the past and present, and it follows a Seoul hit factory as it tries to break its stable of custom-groomed performers into the American market. For this goal, they are prepared to give up nearly everything.
In 2017, Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Woodshed Collective presented Teddy Bergman’s production of the play, which featured an edgy, immersive take on the play’s central concept. It posed the viewer as part of a travelling focus group who, as ambassadors of American taste, would be taken in groups from planet to planet to get a taste of what those concessions may entail.
While some may have seemed childish, others were rather incisive; one interaction with a plastic surgeon, in particular, was unsettling. Even though the reversal was confusing on a narrative level, by the time everyone had gathered in the last room for a concert-cum-party, the joyful fun of the bubble-gummy tunes (by Helen Park and Max Vernon) felt earned.
— NYT Theater (@nytimestheater) November 27, 2022
Were we finally cheering for something that the show had spent so much time telling us to hate? That issue persists, and now there are even more facets to it. To begin, the fact that no Broadway theatre could host the immersive concept presented Bergman, directing again, with an insurmountable challenge.
Part of the problem is solved by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s set design, which has a tongue-shaped stage that slides back and forth while carrying performers. There are video screens strategically placed throughout the venue (Peter Nigrini is the projection designer), allowing us to watch the behind-the-scenes antics that Harry the filmmaker (Aubie Merrylees) records when he loses his mind.
The story structure was only partially restored. The audience is no longer a focus group but instead witnesses Ruby (Jully Lee), a K-pop entrepreneur, as she gets ready for the concert that will unveil her portfolio of performers to the American public.
Ruby has helped propel three groups to stardom: the five-member RTMIS (pronounced Artemis), the eight-member F8 (pronounced fate), and the solo diva MwE (pronounced mu-WEE). Moon by Eden’s MwE (who is portrayed by real-life K-pop sensation Luna) has undergone a complete transformation.
She is past the point of pop credibility, but now she wants artistic freedom and a normal life with her boyfriend, which is a far more pressing issue (Jinwoo Jung). Even as she criticises MwE for not putting their hearts into their performances, Ruby is doing everything in her power to squelch those potentially disastrous notions.