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The odds are that unless you’re Asian, or possibly a teenager, you haven’t given much thought to Korean pop music. But the genre widely known as K-pop is gaining a growing following both in the U.S. and around the world. It’s now the subject of an ambitious new immersive, interactive musical that is often as physically exhausting as it is wildly entertaining. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes if you attend, because KPOP, which involves lots of standing and walking up and down stairs, demands as much from its audience as the Korean pop music industry apparently demands from its young artists.
The show represents a collaboration among three of off-Broadway’s most adventurous theater companies: Woodshed Collective, which specializes in site-specific immersive theater productions; Ma-Yi Theater, which champions the work of Asian-American artists; and Ars Nova, the innovative group that first launched the acclaimed Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
In this piece performed in the expansive A.R.T./New York Theatres space, audience members are divided into groups and given a tour of “JTM Entertainment,” a K-pop music factory owned by Moon (James Saito) and his wife Ruby (Vanessa Kai). The couple hope to break into the North American market with their brand of infectious pop. To that end they’ve hired Jerry (James Seol), head of Crossover, an agency that popularized the likes of Shakira, IKEA and Le Pain Quotidien in America. The Korean-American Jerry, born in San Diego, admits that prior to his current position, the only Korean performer he had ever heard was Psy. “I don’t even know what Gangnam is,” he says.
Touring the multilevel facility, we’re introduced to such JTM artists as diva-like star MwE (Ashley Park, soon to be seen in the Mean Girls musical), the six-member girl group Special K and the boy band F8, which inexplicably consists of five singers. Among the other characters we meet are the company’s in-house plastic surgeon (David Shih), vocal coach (Amanda Morton) and fiercely intimidating dance instructor (Ebony Williams, one of the backup dancers on Beyonce’s Formation tour).
“This is where the sausage is made,” we’re informed as we watch the singers put through demanding vocal and dance exercises, receive media training, be examined by the plastic surgeon for any facial flaws and work on new material. Along the way, hidden conflicts rise to the surface: the F8 members quarrel about whether their new single should sound more Korean or American; the vocal coach puts a young Special K member through her paces; and Jerry is maligned for not speaking Korean.
The most dramatic scene occurs in MwE’s hidden sanctuary, where she conducts a carefully scripted Q&A session under Ruby’s watchful eyes. The clearly miserable young singer quickly proves rebellious, demanding that she be allowed to record a new ballad.
“It’s not right for you,” Ruby tells her. “I’m 26,” MwE protests. “Exactly,” Ruby replies. She then brings in the company’s new solo artist, Sonoma (Julie Abueva), formerly Jessica of Special K. The ensuing encounter between the two singers doesn’t go at all well.
Despite its plethora of incidents, the show’s book, written by Jason Kim, proves its weakest element, with the overlong proceedings becoming repetitive and meandering. But the paper-thin characterizations and hackneyed dialogue don’t prevent KPOP from being great fun. The production’s elaborate mechanics are expertly executed, with the audience shepherded through the imaginatively conceived settings with clockwork efficiency. The mostly youthful ensemble is terrifically talented — some of them, admittedly, more so musically than dramatically — delivering the infectious original score composed by Helen Park and Max Vernon (in English and Korean) with pulsing energy.
The show’s indisputable highlight comes at the end, when we’re treated to a mini-concert by all the KPOP stars. Featuring dazzling choreography and full-throttle vocals by the sexy young performers, the musical numbers wouldn’t look out of place at Madison Square Garden. Which would make the heads of JTM Entertainment very happy.
Venue: A.R.T./New York Theatres, New York
Cast: Ashley Park, James Saito, Vanessa Kai, James Seol, Julia Abueva, Katie Lee Hill, Deborah Kim, Sun Hye Park, Cathy Ang, Susannah Kim, Jason Tam, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, Joomin Hwang, John Yi, Ebony Williams, Amanda Morton, David Shih
Director: Teddy Bergman
Conception: Woodshed Collective, Jason Kim
Book: Jason Kim
Music & lyrics: Helen Park, Max Vernon
Production & set designer: Gabriel Hainer Evansohn
Immersive design: Woodshed Collective
Costume designer: Tricia Barsamian
Lighting designer: Jeanette Ol-suk Yew
Sound designer: Will Pickens
Projection & video designer: Phillip Gulley
Choreographer: Jennifer Weber
Presented by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, Woodshed Collective
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