The showbiz musical has a long, renowned, and profitable history, giving audiences a peek behind the curtain to see what happens when the dangerous combination of youth, talent, and ambition meet the cold reality of the bottom line. If a hopeful up-and-comer is fortunate, that’s the only costly lesson waiting in the wings, but usually there are much steeper prices to pay. Broadway classics like Gypsy and A Chorus Line make their characters, and us, wonder if the pain required to reach the heights is worth it. By contrast, the new Broadway musical KPOP concludes with an unambiguous reassurance: totally worth it!
Pardon the incredulity, but listening to a group of fresh-faced women sing “I only live to make you happy/anything you want just wind me up/and then I’ll do it gladly” doesn’t inspire confidence that South Korean popular music holds the key to universal well-being or should be regarded without moral reservation. Originally conceived off-Broadway as an immersive experience by playwright Jason Kim and the theater company Woodshed Collective, the first iteration of KPOP evinced its own nagging qualms about a star-making system comparable to the notorious old Hollywood one. But, in its journey to Midtown, a reimagined KPOP has abandoned its weightier self-awareness, along with a lot of its creativity.
Anchored by the Circle in the Square Theatre’s thrust stage, Kim saddles KPOP director Teddy Bergman with an updated book that lacks the previous production’s narrative buoyancy. Jennifer Weber’s hyper-choreographed musical numbers, however, seemed to largely satisfy the seat-dancing K-pop aficionados visible around me. Happily for them, Kim’s lackluster storytelling eventually completely gives way to an extended final kick from Helen Park and Max Vernon’s genre-blending score. With lyrics belted out in English and untranslated Korean, the former’s predominantly shallow focus on fame, fortune, and fun suggest no deeper insight into the characters is lost from failing to comprehend the latter. Still, anyone with Sondheimian attitudes about songwriting will probably wince at the awkward rhyming of “words” like “Ameri-ka” and “generi-ka.”
Adopting the hokey framing device of a concert documentary, Kim turns the impending U.S. debut of a South Korean entertainment company’s three hottest acts into a triptych of rigorously gendered plots. While attempting to capture all the glitz, glamor, and artistry, the American documentarian (Aubie Merrylees) also relentlessly stirs the pot to heighten any behind-the-scenes discord for the cameras, which doesn’t make much sense since his paycheck is signed by Ruby (Jully Lee), the record label’s iron-fisted founder and driving force, who obviously wants a glorified promotional video, not an investigative report. But to ascribe dramaturgical logic to the situation is to entirely miss the point. Aided by Peter Nigrini’s voyeuristic projections of backstage squabbling, the objective is not truth but, rather, to establish the type of assiduously rendered false intimacy fans perceive as truth.
Analyzing Kim’s script in that way makes it more understandable, if not more enjoyable. It also explains how Ruby, a formidable combination of Mama Rose and David Geffen, can be viewed somewhat sympathetically as she browbeats ludicrously regimented routines (eat your heart out, Busby Berkeley!) from her assembly-line talent. With their mythological names, ethereal beauty, and otherworldly costumes (by Clint Ramos & Sophia Choi, arguably the production’s MVP), the all-girl group RTMIS and the all-boy group F8 are the cherubic accompaniment to MwE (real-life K-Pop sensation Luna) who is presented as nothing less than a glimmering goddess. But, as is so often the case with deities, MwE has doubts about sacrificially prioritizing the world’s contentment over her own. Luckily for the fans, Ruby is there to remind MwE of her dream to become whatever Ruby wants her to be.
As MwE wrestles with abandonment issues and the desire for a normal dating life (let’s call them crosses to bear), the RTMIS quintet struggles to overcome ever-present, and legitimate, worries about their replaceability while the F8 octet suffers from racial disharmony after taking on its newest member Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), a Korean-American performer from the “suburbs of Connecticut” whose inclusion in the group has more to do with marketing demographics than anything else. Brad’s ostracization offers compelling dramatic possibilities for Kim to explore, even a meta one, but these opportunities are sidestepped in favor of a few culminating bromides (emphasis on the bro-) before Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s set shifts back into concert mode and Jiyoun Chang’s blaring lights resume their rotating. It’s all meant to leave everyone with the unshakeable belief that the show will go on, no matter what.
KPOP (through December 11, 2022)
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.kpopbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission