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Theater review by Adam Feldman
The delightful new musical KPOP knows what kind of immersive theater it wants to be: The script says it aims to plunge us into the world of contemporary Korean music “like a bubble bath,” and that’s exactly what it does. It all pours out in the opening number, when the audience gathers for a supposed music-factory tour, and a dozen smiley young performers—stars of the fictional label JTM Entertainment—appear around us, dressed in flashy costumes as they deliver a pitch to cross over into the elusive U.S. market. (“Look at us,” they sing. “Look at us right now.”) For the next two and a half hours, as we move in groups through different areas of the shiny new A.R.T./New York Theatres complex, tiny bubbles of pleasure keep floating up and bursting all around us. Pop! Pop! Pop! We’re sold.
It isn’t all froth, however. Conceived by the ambitious interactive theater troupe Woodshed Collective and playwright Jason Kim, KPOP wants to give us the bathwater, too: the dirt and sweat that go into the performers’ meticulously crafted images, and the scrubbing away of accents and other evidence of Korean ethnicity. Kim’s multiple stories—carefully coordinated by director Teddy Bergman to unfold simultaneously for different groups of audience members—suggest an update of Michael Bennett’s two classic showbiz musicals, the behind-the-music drama of Dreamgirls merged with the individualization project of A Chorus Line.
The talented and ultracute performers—including multiple actors born in Korea—perform Jennifer Weber’s demanding choreography while singing to prerecorded tracks of bilingual songs (written and produced by Helen Park and Max Vernon); they also must act at intensely close range. Produced by Ars Nova in association with Woodshed and Ma-Yi Theater Company, KPOP has impressive breadth, even if at times it feels overstretched. The track devoted to the grooming of girl group SpecialK is less compelling than the one about boy band F8 (which includes Jason Tam as an Asian-American interloper and Joomin Hwang as an endearing hip-hopper who doesn’t speak much English); strongest by far is the third track, set in a lounge of birch trees and white fur, that features the exceptional Ashley Park as MwE, a petulant Britney-esque solo singer who has been wrung out by stardom and feels threatened by the rise of younger power vocalist Sonoma (Julia Abueva).
KPOP’s build partly depends, therefore, on the order in which you see its component parts. But any misgivings are forgotten in the rush of the extended concert finale, which sweeps you up in the thrill of a crowd that can hardly wait to burst into applause. Many Americans have so far been resistant to the manifold charms of Korean pop. This show leaves you wanting more.
A.R.T./New York Theatres (Off Broadway). Book by Jason Kim. Music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon. Directed by Teddy Bergman. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Oct 7.