Review: KPOP brings high-octane Korean pop and low-stakes drama to Broadway

Pop music is a business. This is Broadway. People who work in both fields can say many altruistic things about dreams Y Art, but the ultimate goal is to make a profit. So one might assume that the meeting of Broadway and Korean pop music (one of the most rigorous and lucrative industries of its kind) would be a happy marriage of super-talented realists who get the mission brief. Unfortunately, this is not the case with k-popCircle in the Square’s new musical invites audiences to the US debut of a Korean pop label.

The company, RBY, is the brainchild of Ruby (Jully Lee), a failed K-pop star who is determined to break into the industry as a producer. She has spent years training the girl group RTMIS (pronounced like the Greek huntress) and the boy band F8. Ruby clearly believes that to create a compelling brand, she only needs to drop a few vowels, something she has in common with the owners of many prestigious gyms and expensive restaurants in this city. Ruby’s star solo act, MwE (Luna), gets the “E” from her, but does she have anything else? Why doesn’t she have any friends? And why can’t she spend more than a couple of hours with her boyfriend (Jinwoo Jung) before they take her to dance practice?

MwE’s quarter-life crisis threatens to turn Ruby’s carefully choreographed concert upside down, and the backstage drama is secretly captured by Harry (Aubie Merrylees), a skinny who thinks he’s a documentary filmmaker. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Ruby, but we suspect America will survive without the addition of three more spinoff pop acts, and some of these artists might be better off escaping a near-abusive system meant to mold them into perfectly packaged pop acts. pop products.

Luna plays MwE in k-pop on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

This is the second major production of k-pop after an ambitious immersive Off-Broadway staging in 2017. Book writer Jason Kim has since radically altered the script, in some ways for the better: Ruby, once the wife of a married production crew, is now the sole monarch. Her story of frustrated ambition turned into a drive to push others to succeed will be instantly recognizable to Broadway audiences, and not just because Lee is giving Mama Rose great energy. Sadly, the Broadway transfer has mostly resulted in a flattening of the story.

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Part of the magic of the off-Broadway run was the feeling of listening in on private conversations and watching unrehearsed moments as we explored a K-pop factory (a complete makeover of the ART/New York theater building at 53rd and 10th streets). If the conflicts and relationships didn’t always make sense, we could rationalize it by assuming that there were things our fellow audiences saw in different rooms that we weren’t even invited to, topics to discuss after the show or to discover in a rewatch. Here, we see everything and realize that there is not much game there.

The original members of F8 still feud with their latest addition, Korean American Brad (a lovable Zachary Noah Piser). They worry about how their entry into the American market will change them (this leads to “America” ​​rhyming with “hysteric-a” and “generic-a” in the song “American (Checkmate)”). A fascinating part of the script about plastic surgery and the efforts of artists to secure a career has been removed as a distinctive mole, leaving the ladies of RTMIS with very little conflict. And Harry never runs into such a big threat: We know Ruby has to sign her paycheck (or not) in the end. The script’s flaws have become more apparent under the bright lights of Broadway.

The Broadway cast of k-pop.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Musically, however, k-pop has never sounded better. The songs, by Helen Park and Max Vernon, are a loving homage to the genre, which is essentially a more maniacal take on American and Swedish pop music of the past 20 years, with lyrics in a dizzying cocktail of English and Korean. Any of the anthem’s power ballads would make respectable national entries in the Eurovision Song Contest. In nearly every up-tempo number, a driving rhythm underpins a verse that bursts into an irresistible chorus; this is followed by an interlude of rap, rinse and repeat. It’s a formula, but the formula works: you couldn’t help but dance to these songs if you were a little tipsy in a club (RTMIS’ upbeat number “Gin & Tonic” makes this point). This may be heretical to say in the church of musical theater, but k-pop it is at its best when history is given over to pure spectacle.

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Director Teddy Bergman backs this up with an animated staging replete with flashing lights (by Jiyoun Chang), outlandish costumes (by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi), and inexplicable projections of stately manors. in flambé (by Peter Nigrini). On the already advanced Circle in the Square set, set designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has built a second platform that projects even further forward over a trapdoor, much like Jabba the Hut’s dais. This presents choreographer Jennifer Weber with many opportunities to create dynamic dance on multiple levels, and she takes advantage of them all. The sound (by Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister) is equally impressive, turning a stadium concert into a 700-seat theatre.

Kevin Woo (center) plays one of the eight members of F8 in the Broadway production of k-pop.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

None of this would matter without an all-star cast, which k-pop has. The brightest of the constellation is Luna, who brings a powerful voice to an emotionally vulnerable performance. The five women of RTMIS (Min, Bohyung, Kate Mina Lin, Amy Keum, and Julia Abueva) unleash stunning harmonies. And the eight men of F8 (the aforementioned Piser, plus Jiho Kang, John Yi, Joshua Lee, Kevin Woo, Abraham Lim, Eddy Lee and James Kho) amaze us with their perfectly timed moves. There is not a weak link in the cast, which boasts some of the best vocalists and dancers on Broadway right now.

If you want to see them, I suggest you buy a ticket today, because I don’t suspect k-pop it will be in Circle in the Square for a long time. The box office has been lousy during previews. Endemic Broadway audiences are likely to reject a show with unknown music and a mediocre script (they’re only willing to put up with a crappy book if it features a sanitized biography of a musical artist old enough to have known Ed Sullivan). And legitimate K-pop fans are unlikely to come to Broadway in any significant numbers, opting to save their ticket money for when their “idol” stops by in New York. Kim’s script (who takes himself very seriously) feels at odds with the cotton candy music and dance routines. All this means damnation for k-popa delicious musical entertainment that is best appreciated that way and nothing more.



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