By Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim; Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective
Off Broadway, Immersive Musical
Runs through 10.21.17
A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
by Asya Danilova on 9.26.17
Jason Tam in KPOP. Photo by Ben Arons.
BOTTOM LINE: The expansive, glamorous production of Ars Nova's new immersive musical gives us a peek at what it takes to be a K-pop star.
At the KPOP Station bar they offer you a soju cocktail and a plastic cup filled with colorful candy that bursts from the top. That light buzz and sugar rush, followed by exhaustion, mimics the entire experience of KPOP. Consisting of many "empty calories," this immersive musical, commissioned by Ars Nova and developed in collaboration with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective, is still irresistibly delicious.
The hip new venue, A.R.T./New York Theatres, is transformed into a two-story KPOP Station: a "boot camp" facility for the stars of JTM Entertainment. The heads of the music label, Moon (James Saito) and Ruby (Vanessa Kai) hires Jerry (James Seol) to make Korean pop artists more appealing to Americans. After a glittery introduction to the singers, the audience, aka the "focus group," is divided into smaller groups and sent on a guided tour around the star-making factory. Navigating the maze of rehearsal and recording rooms, offices and private chambers, we get a chance to see how much sweat and tears it takes to conquer the American musical Olympus.
The glamorous, sugarcoated image of the label’s stars hides a lot of drama. MwE (Ashley Park), confronted with the idea of making space for a younger soloist, doesn’t want to give up her "prima ballerina" status. Girls from the Special K group are endlessly tortured by the choreographer Jenn (Ebony Williams), vocal coach Yazmeen (Amanda Morton), and plastic surgeon Dr. Pack, in a merciless drive for perfection. Five members of the boy band F8 (pronounced "fate") are divided as to whether they should perform in English or Korean. The stars' complicated relationship with the producers, Moon and Ruby, and a hint of a romantic storyline spice up the action, making KPOP akin to a TV reality show.
KPOP is at its best when playing on the contrast of "true" versus "constructed," emphasized most successfully in MwE’s story. "My woman from Milan gets it for me. I go through like five bottles a week," shares the diva while dripping an invisible liquid into the tub in the middle of her luxurious personal lounge. "This is medicinal air!" she explains impatiently and tosses the bottle to one of the audience members before submerging. Is it real or fake; does she believe in it or is she doing it for appearances’ sake? Ashley Park playfully nails the part of the "Korean Beyoncé," swinging between mechanical perfection and badly hidden bursts of insecurity.
The sparky choreography by Jennifer Weber and flashy costumes by Tricia Barsamian truly make the stars shine. Slick production design by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, enhanced by the elaborate lighting by Janette Oi-Suk Yew, effectively utilizes A.R.T./New York Theatres’ entire space in creating a convincingly glamorous and self-sufficient universe. Little details, like advertisement posters of familiar brands alongside JTM Entertainment stars and meticulously organized product displays, quietly underline how pop music often treats its stars as market goods.
The music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon are delightfully catchy and could easily appear at the top of K-pop music charts. However, the sound design (by Will Pickens) makes it difficult to understand the lyrics in certain scenes, and also makes the voices sound overly processed. While this is perhaps the point, it means that, especially at F8’s rehearsal room, it can be hard to tell that the actors are singing live (they are).
KPOP picks up steam in the finale, with a full-blown pop concert. But its didactic conclusion is suspiciously easy. What happened to the political divide, questions of race and beauty, and stolen childhoods? They all dissolved in the glam and glitter of the pop music.
(KPOP plays at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, through October 21st, 2017. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Performances through October 7 are Tuesday at 7, Wednesday at 3 and 8, Thursday at 8, and Friday and Saturday at 3 and 8; starting October 9, the schedule is Monday through Wednesday at 7, Thursday at 8, and Friday and Saturday at 3 and 8. Tickets are $45 to $75 through 10/7 and $75 to $125 (with $25 "under 30" rush tickets) on and after 10/9. To purchase tickets visit arsnovanyc.com or call 212-352-3101.)
KPOP is conceived by Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim. Directed by Teddy Bergman. Book by Jason Kim. Music and Lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon. Choreography by Jennifer Weber. Costumes by Tricia Barsamian. Lighting Design by Janette Oi-Suk Yew. Sound Design by Will Pickens. Projection and Video design by Philip Gulley.
The cast is Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Katie Lee Hill, Joomin Hwang, Jinwoo Jung, Vanessa Kai, Jiho Kang, Deborah Kim, Susannah Kim, Amanda Morton, Ashley Park, Sun Hye Park, James Saito, James Seol, David Shih, Jason Tam, John Yi and Ebony Williams.