When an earlier version of KPOP opened Off-Broadway in the Fall of 2017, it played to sold-out houses and was the recipient of multiple awards. Now on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre, the immersive multimedia musical – conceived by Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim (book), with music and lyrics, music production and arrangements by Helen Park, and music and lyrics by Max Vernon – takes a behind-the-scenes look at the global phenomenon of Korean pop bands through the lens of filming the dress rehearsal for a one-night-only superstar concert in the US, threatened by secret unauthorized documentary footage that captures the personal struggles and in-fighting of the artists, and could dismantle the groups, the show, and one of the biggest record labels in the genre. Will it all implode, or will the high-stakes concert go on as planned?
Presented on a thrust stage with the audience seated on three sides and the front rows within inches of the cast, the electrifying design and exhilarating musical numbers recreate the experience of being at a live K-pop concert, with full sound that surrounds us by Peter Hylenski and Peter Fitzgerald and dynamic neon lighting, focused spotlights, and rotating colored lights by Jiyoun Chang that activate the space, accentuate the stars, engulf the house, and add even more excitement to the show. The set by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn and projections by Peter Nigrini seamlessly weave the story lines together as they efficiently shift from on-stage dress rehearsal and interviews to back-stage conversations, off-site interactions, and flashbacks to the characters’ younger days, using moving platforms, a central stage lift, an opening back wall, live-feed and pre-recorded video, and digital screens above and around stage and seating.
The post-modern high tech and top-notch production values are perfectly in tune with the subject and enhance the company’s high-energy performances, under the rousing direction of Teddy Bergman, pulsing music direction of Sujin Kim-Ramsey and synth by Randy Cohen, and thrilling choreography of Jennifer Weber, through eighteen songs delivered by the three fictional acts: girl group RTMIS (played by Min, Bohyung, Kate Mina Lin, Amy Keum, and Julia Abueva); boy band F8 (Jiho Kang, John Yi, Joshua Lee, Kevin Woo, Abraham Lim, James Kho, Zachary Noah Piser, and Patrick Park, in for Eddy Lee on the date I attended), and headliner Mwe (Luna – the real-life South Korean lead vocalist and dancer from the K-pop group f(x), who is also known for her acting on the stage and screen). They masterfully deliver the tight harmonies, segments of rap, and powerhouse solos, along with the exuberant dance and synchronized moves that capture the stylings and spirit of K-pop – in dazzling costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, hair and wigs by Mia M. Neal, and make-up by Joe Dulude II and Suki Tsujimoto – and the journey, thoughts, and emotions of their characters.
Luna’s Mwe is a centerpiece of the narrative, as she questions why her mother abandoned her at an early age, the difficult road to stardom she’s been on since childhood (like the “Wind Up Doll” she sings about), and if she’d be happier marrying the man she’s been dating (Juny, sensitively played by Jinwoo Jung, who joins her in the beautiful acoustic duet “Mute Bird”) to lead a quiet simple life out of the spotlight. Paramount to her decision is her relationship with Ruby, the authoritative and demanding head and founder of RBY entertainment corporation (portrayed with comical impatience and control by Jully Lee), who signed MwE to her record label at the age of nine, mentored her in the career Ruby herself failed to achieve in her own youth, and became a surrogate mother to her.
Adding to the stress of the upcoming concert is the tension in F8 between the group and its newest member, the American-born English-speaking Brad (the excellent Piser), who ignores their standard format of individually introducing themselves to the audience in Korean (a language he doesn’t speak) and plays to the camera rather than blending in with the others, eliciting their anger and resentment (while singing of being “Halfway” between Korean and American).
It all comes to a head when Harry, the devious director of the documentary film on the making of the concert (played by Aubie Merrylees with a balance of ambition, cunning, and humor), asks some probing questions of the performers in the interest of “making art,” “showing them as human,” and being “honest,” and has his cameraman (Major Curda) surreptitiously record their private moments of tension and conflict, which could make a name for him but blow up Ruby’s entire operation. Bergman’s blocking has all three of them moving up and down the aisles, right next to the audience, overseeing the action and engaging everyone in the close-up experience of the story.
A blazing finale pumps up the volume and brings the energy to new heights with the showstoppers “Gin & Tonic” by RTMIS, “Shake It” by F8 (my personal favorite!), “Phoenix” by MwE, and “Blast Off” by the entire RBY company, in an entertaining youth-oriented musical that exposes the fierce commercialism of the industry and the strict discipline and sacrifices required of young artists to hone their raw talent and to achieve the fame and success of their dreams.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
KPOP plays through Sunday, April 16, 2023, at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $104.50-248.50, plus fees), go online. Masks are optional but encouraged in the theater.