Broadway’s “KPOP” Astonishes on the Surface, But Fails to Dig Deep.

Luna in Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

The Broadway Theatre Review: KPOP

By Ross

As they set themselves up, KPOP the new musical comes floating forward on a black stepped thrust, selling itself like a prettily packaged product ready for consumption by the eager young masses filling the auditorium. I know I’m not the target audience member, like many that surround me, as I know absolutely nothing about the global phenomenon known as K-pop. I truly don’t. I have never listened to any of the music coming out under that banner (I’m embarrassed to say) and have no clue about its ever-increasing popularity that has exponentially expanded and enthralled the fandom world of pop music. I’m blissfully unaware of the groups (that I had to look up) such as BTS, Blackpink, EXO, TWICE, and more, that seems to deliver this musical genre of exacting choreography and pitch-perfect harmony with such, almost painfully, deliberate precision. It’s pretty impressive, I must say, just how manufactured and picture-pretty this phenomenon truly is, much like this newest venture, Broadway’s KPOP musical that drops itself strongly onto the thrust stage of The Circle in the Square Theater with numerous mind-blowing performances and movements, one after the other. It really delivers the goods in those two departments, sound and fury, but unfortunately for this genre and for this production, the required rest of what makes good theatre great falters and fails to land with ease. No matter how exacting it is.

The cast of Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

KPOP tries, almost desperately, with an open-ended vulnerability to draw us in, using the overwhelming pressure for success as the tool to connect. It feels like an old Hollywood plot formula, presenting the symbolic mother/daughter pairing and the complicated push and pull that exists within that bond that ultimately is what fuels these kids need to succeed, and ultimately be validated. Created and conceptualized from a somewhat clumsy playing field by Woodshed Collective and book-writer Jason Kim (HBO’s “Barry“), with music, lyrics, and music production by Helen Park (“Over the Moon“), and music and lyrics by Max Vernon (The View UpStairs), KPOP unfurls itself most consciously and dynamically on that well-structured faux-concert stage, designed neatly by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn (Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd). It slides the performers towards us with force, paralleling the desperate desire by these performers to find maternal approval from the hardened mamma bear music executive, former star, and CEO named Ruby, played with cutthroat determination by Jully Lee (Joy Luck Club‘s 1st National Tour). And she’s no easy pushover, by any means.

Ruby is a force of nature, we are instructed to acknowledge, white suit-stalking the auditorium where her collection of K-pop groups has come together for the fictional South Korean music label RBY Entertainment’s first U.S. showcase. It’s a huge event, we are told, acknowledged by all the techno-wizardry that this production has amassed before us to our amazement. The lighting by Jiyoun Chang (Broadway’s Slave Play) never fails to astonish, assisted most strongly by the sound design by Andrew Keister (Broadway’s Company) and the jaw-dropping projection design by Peter Nigrini (Broadway’s Beetlejuice). These production pros keep giving us more and more as if they realize that this is as deep as this story is going to get, and they must dazzle us so we might not notice the shallowness of the material. But the show does have an idea to turn this around, and on the eve of that concert, a few skips in the precision machine derail the momentum of the event, sending everyone scrabbling for some sense of security in their mad climb up the musical mountain.

Luna in Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

The company’s long-reigning star, the gorgeously attired MwE, thanks to stellar costuming by Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Slave Play) and Sophia Choi (Yale Rep’s An Enemy of the People), freezes mid-song. It’s definitely a crack in the armor that was never intended, especially during one of the final rehearsals in a glittering bodysuit made to make her mark on us all. And it works. She is electrifying to take in visually, and one that teases us enough to make us lean in wanting more. Played fascinatingly by real-life superstar Luna, a true blue South Korean K-pop singer, musical actress, and television presenter, best known as the main vocalist and lead dancer of the K-pop girl group f(x), the head-lining singer is overcome, experiencing a crisis of sorts, and it sends her scrabbling for security in her dressing room. The tension fills the stage as Ruby descends on her to find out what has happened to her headliner and star. The moment brings the rehearsal to the edge, sending the other K-pop group members into their own sinkhole of concern; a state of instability that could easily bring down the whole ship if left too long to fester.

Standing by, documenting the whole thing, almost gleefully, is the somewhat sleazy videographer Harry, played well by Aubie Merrylees (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird), who only sees in the breakdown an opportunity for digging deeper into the formulaic world of K-pop, and hopefully, he thinks, exposing the underlying problems. He, in the most manipulative of fashions, starts laying the groundwork for conflict and secret cinema-graphic eavesdropping, recording private backroom conversations between the CEO/maternal figure, Ruby, the conflicted pop star, and her stabilizing boyfriend, Juny, played strongly by the very handsome Jinwoo Jung (Mark Taper’s The Christians).

This is the keyhole moment of the show, with the intention being to give us a secret insight into the star’s history, her background, and possibly what makes this young woman, and maybe all the others, Rick. They all seem so desperate for success, and underneath, they all carry a deep deafening need for approval from their K-pop mentor, Ruby. This is the catalyst for KPOP, a psychoanalytic minefield about approval, validation, and abandonment, that never really feels truly honest or authentic. The artifice, though, is now cracked, and beginning to spin out before us, shooting us back in time and re-starting again with the now-famous star having her first awkward audition in front of the determined but more desperate younger Ruby. The production tries to locate its heart, pushing that flashback narrative forward in bits and pieces throughout the overly long show. But it’s a paint-by-numbers approach to projected parental approval that seems to work its magic on the majority of the excited crowd that has gathered to cheer on this musical, but fails to fully register its truth inside this unimpressed viewer.

Zachary Noah Piser in Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

The other weed that Harry, along with his reluctant cameraman (Major Curda), tries to plant is within the ranks of Ruby’s boyband group F8, led by its strong-willed leader, Jun Hyuk, played by K-Pop soloist Kevin Woo. The group gives off the impression of being tight and uniformly controlled, bringing the dynamic choreography of Jennifer Weber (West End/Broadway’s & Juliet) to exacting energetic life, but the bonds within aren’t as loyally tied together as one might believe. The group is at odds with its newest member, the young, cute, and extremely driven Brad, played impressively by the adorable Zachary Noah Piser (Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd). He plays a singer from Connecticut who has jumped the line, he has been told, when he was picked to join the already well-established boys group even though he can’t speak any Korean. Harry tries to draw out the conflictual drama with the members of this boyband group, for the sake of his documentary ‘art’, as he does with the five-membered girl group RTMIS, who are also making their debut at this concert. He doesn’t exactly get what he wants though as he is just as conniving as anyone on that stage, more worried about success than being somewhat authentically human.

Directed with a never-ending hypnotic energy by Teddy Bergman (Woodshed Collective’s Empire Travel Agency) with music direction by Sujin Kim-Ramsey (JCTC’s Beatrice), KPOP tries its best to bring forth all of these differing complex issues that are rooted somewhere within this drive and intense configuration. These young hard working kids find moments to unpack their trauma, releasing all that they have given up to be here on that stage, hoping for success. Some tell us tales of hardship, like eating issues, being sleep deprived, or barely having any contact with their own families for years upon years, all with the hope for stardom and financial success. No wonder they have attachment difficulties, constantly trying to get love and attention from the symbolic mother figure, Ruby. It’s difficult to hear these issues brought forth, one after the other, yet the show never really gives these issues space to be explored before we are thrown into another distracting, yet entertaining, song and dance. But this is the nature of this musical. The problems within this industry are obvious and pretty complex, but at the end of the day, it really just wants us to see the tightly controlled artifice doing what it does best. And just don’t pay any attention to what’s going on behind the scenic curtain.

Kevin Woo (center) and the cast of Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

Most of the enthralled audience members go along with this musically-appealing ideal, listening to the small inconsequential plot lines while patiently waiting for the musical moments that make them bounce with delight in their seats. The energy, I must admit, was pretty darn infectious, as this show truly does shine when the music and the choreography take center stage. And Luna shines her bright spotlight brighter and brighter as the story unfolds. The only problem is that underneath those brilliant costumes and gorgeously beautiful and talented faces, not much else is happening. No matter how much KPOP the Musical tries to trick us into believing they are being vulnerable and open with us, there is little to nothing uncovered, nor is anything of real value dug up backstage for our hungry eyes to see, hear, or digest.

K-Pop fans will definitely appreciate this beautifully packaged branding, as it is fun, festive, loud, and fantastically staged, but for anyone looking for more depth, this isn’t where you’ll find it. Pulsating with song after song filled with infectious beats, electrifying choreography, and big-grinned fun, KPOP is relentless in its drive for domination, using discipline, raw talent, and commercial ambition as the bases for this fractured attempt to be a phenomenon. It doesn’t do the job. Not really. Unless all you’re here for is that baseless bounce.

KPOP began previews on October 13, 2022, but unfortunately, the closing date has already been set for December 11, 2022, barely any time after its official opening night on November 20, 2022.

The cast of Broadway’s KPOP. photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.


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