Before seeing the show KPOP, I knew next to nothing about the world of K-pop, a hybrid style of South Korean popular music that’s enormously popular and influential not just in South Korea, but all over East Asia and increasingly all over the world—with the glaring absence of North America. Having spent two and a half hours immersed in the fully realized simulation of a K-pop “factory” (part recording studio, part training facility, part dormitory) that’s taken over the ART/NY complex under the joint auspices of Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Woodshed Collective, I may not be quitting my job to follow a boy band around the globe, but I’m definitely humming the infernally catchy tunes, and intrigued by the glimpses into, as one of the staffers says, “how the sausage gets made.”
The show is an obsessively detailed repository of the secrets of said sausage. The level of precision and craft involved on every level of this production, from creator/writer Jason Kim to director Teddy Bergman to the “immersive design” team at Woodshed Collective to the cast of eighteen (most of whom have to not only act, sing, and dance, but do the first two in a mixture of Korean and English), are mind-boggling. First, the show fills not only both performance spaces in the complex, but every ancillary room, corridor, lobby, and all kinds of backstage areas you wouldn’t even normally know exist. The journey through the show takes you from dance studio to video lounge to media training booth dressing room to music rehearsal studio to high-tech plastic surgeon’s treatment room—and culminates in a fully realized pop concert with twelve performers on a heretofore unseen large stage (whose appearance thoroughly mangled any mental maps I’d managed to construct of the space). And second, where most of the immersive/environmental theater pieces I’ve seen build from the existing aesthetic and quirks of the space, often embracing the random and the ramshackle, KPOP is all about the creation of a sparkly, ultra-polished, precision-controlled surface, and the space reflects that, even as the characters let us into the hard work and stress and conflicts behind those surfaces.
Everything is brightly colored, enhanced with video projections, and engineered for specific impressions. Korean-language labels have been added to every piece of informational signage in the building. Huge posters for consumer-product advertising campaigns featuring the fictional K-pop artists created for the show line the hallways. Each of the five members of the boy band F8 has a scene that takes place in his individual dressing room, all custom designed down to the used tissues by the makeup mirror. Every shoe worn by every cast member (the costumes are by Tricia Barsamian) is a perfect character note, from the fierce pumps of the record-label matriarch to the glittery high-heeled sneakers of one of the girl-group members.
The premise for this behind-the-scenes tour is a marketing focus group for the K-pop factory JTM Entertainment, creators and managers of solo artist MwE (Ashley Park), boy group F8 (Joomin Hwang, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, Jason Tam, and John Yi), and girl group SpecialK (Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Katie Lee Hill, Deborah Kim, Susannah Kim, and Sun Hye Park). The focus group is the brainchild of a Korean American publicist, Jerry Kim (James Seol), hired to engineer the crossover of the groups into the American market. (Kim’s agency, Crossover Productions is responsible, we are told, for the American success of IKEA, Shakira, and Le Pain Quotidien, among others.) The looming question of why KPop and other Asian pop music (or other pop culture products and stars) don’t succeed in America may be the kickoff question (and is intermittently discussed), but remains for the most part unexamined. Jerry fails at his mission and the record label’s founders decide instead to let their music stand on its own merits, to simply go to America and let the artists do what they do best: sing.
This resolution may feel a bit sentimental and overly pat, especially when Jason Kim’s book has outlined the ambivalence and conflicts within and between the artists: MwE is overworked, facing the end of her “shelf life” as an ingenue, and fed up with the manufactured version of her personal life that maintains her persona. The girls of SpecialK are being media-coached to hide their accents and their personalities, and encouraged to get plastic surgery to give them “the perfect Korean face,” even as one of them, Jessica (Julia Abueva), is being re-made-over into a solo artist, Sonoma. The boys of F8 are riven with internal conflict, after four of their original members were dismissed to hire Epic (Jason Tam), a half-American, non-Korean-speaking outsider. There’s no real plot beyond that, and few character relationships are explored; we hear an occasional tidbit about the performers’ private lives, but that’s not really the focus of the piece.
But when the closing concert starts, it’s almost impossible to resist the infectious energy of the music itself, and of the mix of enthusiasm and precision in the performances. Composer/lyricists Helen Park and Max Vernon know, and clearly have enormous affection for, their source material, and many of the songs could work as both polished commercial pop songs and wry sendups of the tropes of those songs.
It’s hard to pick standout performances: the entire ensemble is terrific, plus as with other immersive shows, my path through it spent more time with certain characters than with others. But favorites included Vanessa Kai and James Saito, who as the record-company matriarch and patriarch add new definitions to the phrase “iron fist in velvet glove”; Joomin Hwang as F8’s “bad boy” rapper Timmy X; Jiho Kang as F8’s gender-bending Lex; Julia Abueva as SpecialK’s Jessica/Sonoma, combining an incisive intelligence with a facade of wide-eyed innocence; and Cathy Ang as SpecialK’s Jin Hee, a fragile baby-faced ingenue.
The show is thoroughly fun—both a loving tribute to KPop and a well-thought-out glimpse behind the polished surface—and beautifully executed. Sometimes it goes too far into being show-offy, possibly overly lavish—for example, knowing that the troupe has an on-call plastic surgeon might have virtually the same effect as constructing three complete sets for his office, his treatment room, and the advertising display for his skin creams. And stripping away a few of the trappings might make a little more room for character relationships or more complicated narratives.
But in the end, meticulous production, high energy, a catchy riff, and a lot of dry ice and glitter give you all you need. There may not be a lot to discover under the surface, but you’re having too good a time to really care. Like the best pop songs, you walk out of KPOP feeling energized, thoroughly entertained, and humming a line of the chorus.