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  • Theater, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Courtesy Evan ZimmermanKPOP

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Real-life Korean pop star Luna makes her Broadway debut.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman

It can be hard to hold onto a sense of yourself as you push toward mainstream showbiz success. That was one of the lessons of the immersive 2017 Off Broadway musical KPOP, in which small groups of audience members moved, Sleep No More style, through a guided music-factory tour of a fictional Korean pop company bent on grooming its performers for fame in the American market. It is also, unfortunately, a lesson of KPOP itself, which has now arrived at Broadway’s Circle in the Square with so much plastic surgery that it is barely recognizable. In my admiring review of the original production, I wrote that  “KPOP knows what kind of immersive theater it wants to be”: a bubble bath that gave us the froth but showed us the dirty water, too. The new version doesn’t seem to know itself half so well. It’s a foam party floating on a trickle of soapy drama.

Jully Lee plays Ruby, the hard-driving force behind a K-pop label called RBY Entertainment that is preparing to make its New York debut. The lead show pony in her stable is MwE, a solo star played by the gifted real-life Korean pop singer and musical-theater actor Luna; also on the roster are the eight-member boy band F8 and the five-member girl group RTMS. In a nod to KPOP’s behind-the-scenes origins, there is a B-plot about B-roll: a white American documentary filmmaker (Aubie Merrylees) is on hand at the rehearsal, trying to expose fissures behind the happy front the company presents to the world. 

KPOP doesn’t stint on concert-style numbers, and that’s where this production shines. Directed by Teddy Bergman, the well-drilled young cast performs Helen Park and Max Vernon’s exuberant pastiche songs (several of which are new to this version of the show) with panache, executing Jennifer Weber’s rigorous choreography with zippy synchronized swagger and verve. Their costumes, by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, are spectacular—wild hybrids of patterns, fabrics, textures and international influences—and the performances are appropriately heightened by the show’s lighting (by Jiyoun Chang), sound (by Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister) and multipaneled set (by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn). 

As much fun as these moments are, however, they have only a tangential relationship to the storytelling; performed in a mixture of English and untranslated Korean, they illustrate the skills of the actors but do little to further the narrative. And book writer Jason Kim, having jettisoned nearly all of his 2017 script, has not found much to replace it with. The focus of the story is now on MwE, yet her most interesting plot line from the original—a fear that she is about to be replaced by a younger singer—is now gone; instead, we get a series of familiar vaguely Gypsy-ish flashbacks about her rise at RBY. (In the earliest one, Luna must pretend to be nine years old.) This coexists uncomfortably with the quasi-documentary conceit of the rest of the show, and it also leaves almost no time to individuate any of the group members; aside from Zachary Noah Piser as a new F8 member resented by his bandmates for being American, they each get only a few lines apiece to make an impression. 

Adapting KPOP for Broadway was never going to be an easy task, and the effort to do so is commendable. But somewhere along its rise through the air, the musical’s bubble has burst. It’s just OKpop now.

KPOP. Circle in the Square Theatre (Broadway). Book by Jason Kim. Music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon. With Luna, Jully Lee, Zachary Noah Piser. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. 

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Luna in KPOP | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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