Friday, September 22, 2017

73 (2017-2018): Review: KPOP (seen September 19, 2017)

“The Good Korean Explosion”

North Korean missile launches may be occupying the headlines but South Korea is responsible for the sonic blasts emanating nightly from the elaborate Ars Nova/Ma-Yi Theatre Company/Woodshed Collective production of Kpop at the sleekly modern A.R.T./New York Theatres in Hell’s Kitchen.
Conceived by the Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim, this is a truly immersive venture (or adventure) into the world of Kpop (or K-Pop), the South Korean musical genre that has become an international sensation over the past several decades (think Psy and “Gangnam Style”). Creatively directed by Teddy Bergman, this ambitious musical occupies a huge amount of space divided into a labyrinth of well-constructed hallways leading to a variety of rooms where the dramatic action (the show’s weakest element) plays out.  
James Seol. Photo: Ben Arons.
The genius behind the design and construction is Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, while Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew has outdone herself in illuminating the complex arrangement with her often dazzling lighting.

When you enter the lobby you receive a colored wristband and then proceed upstairs to a cavernous, black room with a raised stage in the middle and smaller platforms ringing the space. Posters of fictional Kpop idols line the walls. A cash bar awaits the thirsty both before the show and during the grand finale.
James Saito, Vanessa Kai. Photo: Ben Arons.
Unless you can find a box or platform to sit on, you’ll be on your feet for most of Kpop’s over two and a half intermissionless hours; if you’re lucky, you can grab something to perch on for a few minutes here and there. Be sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes and be prepared to sit on the floor when asked.
Vanessa Kai. Photo: Ben Arons.
Early in the proceedings, at scattered moments during the show, and, especially, during the grand finale, you’re treated to some awesomely performed, dynamically choreographed (by Jennifer Weber), original Kpop numbers (by Helen Park and Max Vernon). They’re in the hands of a sensational company of singer-dancer-actors, mostly of Korean descent, and ranging from adorable to (like Sun Hye Park’s Callie) drop-dead gorgeous. Tricia Barsamian’s costumes, especially for the more glam-oriented numbers, will knock your socks off.
John Yi, Joomin Hwang, Jason Tam, Jiho Kang, Jinwoo Jung. Photo: Ben Arons.
The premise is introduced by Jerry (James Seol), a representative of the Crossover agency, whose goal is to “launch rockets into the American market,” that is, to facilitate the crossover of Kpop to American fandom, which he says we can help him do. (This is ultimately ignored.) To help us understand the fuss, he tells us we’ll be taken on a tour of the multi-floor KPOP Station owned by JTM Entertainment, a Kpop company run by the middle-aged husband and wife team, Moon (James Saito) and Ruby (Vanessa Kai), she a former pop star.
Jason Tam. Photo: Ben Arons.
To facilitate the tour of what is also referred to as the KPOP Factory, the audience is divided into groups of 20 or so according to the color of their wristbands. The groups are then led to one “Focus Group Room” after the other to inspect this “pop star boot camp,” where, in several scenes, they’re flies on the wall as the performers are put through their paces by their coaches or discuss things among themselves or with a company superior. 

It’s not long before we realize that these performers are meant to represent the artificial products of an exploitative factory line that portrays itself as having the best interests of its products in mind but insists on robotic replication and has no compunctions about replacing them when the next promising new idol comes along.
kpop company. Photo: Ben Arons.
While much of what’s shown is seen by each group, if not in the same order, it seems that a few bits are not. The major ones my group viewed included several interviews with performers as well as their interactions with a demanding choreographer (Ebony Williams); an equally rigorous vocal coach (Amanda Morton); a businesslike plastic surgeon, Dr. Park (David Shih); and Ruby, the doyenne. Ruby’s scene is set in the eccentric lair of JTM’s 26-year-old, Beyoncé-like diva, MwE (the exquisite, sparklingly gifted Ashley Park), and the focus is on the star’s annoyance that her standing is threatened by the arrival of a younger successor, Jessica/Sonoma (Julia Abueva).
Katie Lee Hill, Deborah Kim, Sun Hye Park, Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Susannah Kim. Photo: Ben Arons.
There’s also a substantive scene showing an argument about artistic choices within the boy group, F8 (pronounced Fate; the girl group is Special K), during which Korean-American intercultural issues are foregrounded. Jason Tam, as Epic, a character with an American dad and a Korean mom, shines.

Occasionally, the audience is asked to briefly participate, which may make some people squirm. The scenes themselves, in their attempt to seem spontaneous and real, are too self-consciously artificial; it’s extremely difficult to believe in the friction that often erupts among company members, with the rest of us looking on, our presence being given little more than lip service.
Ashley Park. Photo: Ben Arons.
There’s a ballad or two, but most of the music, sung largely in English but with many infusions of Korean, is in the raucous, unrestrained, thumpingly rhythmic, dance-inciting style associated with the production numbers of American stars like Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Niki Minaj, and the like, or pop groups on the order of Fifth Harmony or One Dimension.

It combines many types of pop music, including hip-hop, and allows for lavish choreography, eye-popping lighting, and a pounding sound that all but blurs the lyrics. You get to experience a real onslaught of it in the show’s final sequence, as you stand in the crowd, maybe with a beer in your hand, and shout out at the power vocals or the spinning body of an acrobatic breakdancer.
Joomin Hwang (bottom seated on floor left), John Yi (midlevel left), Jinwoo Jung (top), Jiho Kang (pink hair), Jason Tam (arms crossed). Photo: Ben Arons.
Putting its length, physical discomfort, and shallow dramatics aside, this is a show that’s bound to appeal to a younger demographic. Eardrums aside, it’s a safer bet than anything Kim Jong-un can provide from his half of the Korean peninsula. And no one wants to hear the kind of Kpop he claims he’s able to produce.


A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through October 7