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If the Refreshing ‘KPOP’ is the Future of Broadway, Consider Me a Stan

A review of KPOP by Juan Michael Porter II | November 27, 2022

Against all expectations for a behind-the-scenes musical drama, KPOP’s storytelling is as sophisticated as its high-octane performances. Though the newly-opened Broadway musical at Circle in the Square Theater was a hit during its pre-pandemic run at Ars Nova, I was prepared to hate-watch it. Why? Because I wince whenever I hear the cheesy bops of real-life K-pop groups such as BTS or BLACKPINK.

There’s also the reality that, except for the Lady Gaga-led A Star is Born, fictional narratives about musicians tend to be cringe-inducingly awful. What’s not to hate? They have a habit of framing everything in an unrelentingly positive light, are rife with narrative dissonance―wherein characters are both too much and not enough―or are glorified concerts with crêpe-thin plots.

KPOP overcomes all that thanks to Jason Kim’s excellent book which bounces backward and forward in time between four story arcs. Though he initially serves us the typical set-up―a band is rehearsing for their debut concert, which has to go perfectly because everyone has worked so hard; drama ensues―Kim flips things on their head by going multimedia and meta.

Five minutes into her performance, the show’s star performer, MwE (played with beautiful simplicity by real-life K-pop artist Luna) has a breakdown after she imagines seeing the ghost of her mother. This interrupts the filming of what is supposed to be a promotional documentary and unnerves the show’s impresario Ruby (Jully Lee, alternating between delightfully conniving and cluelessly self-serving), as well as the opening acts, girl group RTMIS and boy band F8.

This cues the unscrupulous documentary filmmaker Harry (Aubie Merrylees) to go rogue and violate MwE’s privacy by secretly recording her dressing room breakdown and confrontation with Ruby. These scenes are projected onto live television panels in front of the audience, thanks to Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s glorious and constantly shifting scenic design and Peter Nigrini’s projections―with additional visual content from Seoyeon Lee and Kyusun Lee.

Soon we are flashing back in time to MwE’s childhood where we watch her harden from a budding 9-year-old talent―brutalized by Ruby’s endless reminders that she is expendable―into a young woman on the brink of stardom, who wonders whether any of it was worth it.

Between these flashbacks, Harry attempts to “humanize” RTMIS and F8 with invasive questions or by stirring up drama. Having grown up in South Korea’s unforgiving star system, the women of RTMIS quickly shut him down. But in private moments, they reveal that they are also exhausted by Ruby’s constant belittlement.

F8 is less disciplined. With a bit of niggling from Harry, it is revealed that the non-Korean speaking and newly recruited Asian-American in the group, Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), is being shunned by his bandmates because he expects to be given priority even though he is the new guy.

Kim’s book uses these moments to highlight the traditions of South Korea’s collectivist culture which demands that individuals complement each other in hierarchical settings, rather than race to the forefront. Led by Jun Hyuk (Kevin Woo; excellent, smoldering, and possibly reliving his life as a former K-pop star), F8 bullies Brad by changing their choreography to versions that he doesn’t know.

Though the group falls for Harry’s ploy to instigate drama, Timmy X (Joshua Lee, playing it up as F8’s hot rapper and the show’s best dancer) snaps them out of it by pointing out that they are being played for fools. And that even if they don’t all get along, this is show business and they need to get on.

Back in her dressing room, MwE nearly quits the show in favor of a quiet marriage with her beau Juny (Jinwoo Jung, warm and hunky) and to escape Ruby’s control over her life. Realizing that she is about to lose everything, Ruby drops her Svengali act and allows the group to put on the performance they want.

Though we have watched the cast rehearse their biggest pop numbers throughout the show, KPOP completely ups the ante with a final concluding performance wherein each wonderful individual production element coalesces to blow us out of the water.

To wit, Sophia Choi and Clint Ramos have put their entire design-ussies into their costumes which reveal everything about individual characters, take on a life of their own once the actors start moving, and do things with bedazzled unitards that I didn’t know were possible―Real talk; can we go ahead and give them the Drama Desk and Tony Awards?

Jennifer Weber’s formula-based though clever pop-and-bop choreography―with a stylistic assist from assistant choreographer MJ Choi―is as fun and catchy as anything Britney Spears ever performed. Likewise, Helen Park’s and Max Vernon’s evocative score is full of bangers that also comment on the action―much like John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret. And Jiyoun Chang’s lighting, Mia M. and Neal’s hair and wigs, Joe Dulude II and Suki Tsujimoto, and Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister’s make-up designs must be applauded for converting the show into an actual pop concert. But hats off to director Teddy Bergman for doing the impossible―modulating each show-stopping element so that Kim’s wonderful, multilingual book never loses focus.

Though KPOP feels fresh, there is a precedent for what it has accomplished. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II essentially laid out the blueprint when they revolutionized musical theatre in 1927 with Show Boat―another backstage drama and the first Broadway musical to seamlessly integrate dialogue, music, and dance in the service of plot. Almost one century later, it is a pleasure to see this glorious cast of Pan-Asian performers reclaim and elevate the form. If this is the future of Broadway, please consider me a rabid and reinvigorated stan.

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