Ars Nova’s KPOP begins with a chorus of glittering young Korean pop performers belting the lyrics “the future’s standing right in front of you.” Indeed, the purported mission of the play’s fictional management enterprise, JTM Entertainment, is to bring K-Pop to American audiences, and the production delivers K-Pop-styled numbers in droves.
Produced in association with Ma-Yi Theater and Woodshed Collective, KPOP claims to be an immersive peek into the machinations of the multibillion-dollar pop-music industry, which began in South Korea but has spread to nearly every corner of the world. Director Teddy Bergman’s ambitious blocking has audiences moving around and participating with members of JTM’s boy-band (F8), girl-band (Special K), and crowning jewel solo artist, MwE (played by Ashley Park). The production’s strongest moments, however, are its most traditionally staged scenes. Nonetheless, KPOP provides a mind-blowing concert experience despite its less-polished participatory moments.
Participants receive a wristband upon entering the space of A.R.T./New York Theatres, which has been transformed into a K-Pop “factory.” This wristband determines which of JTM’s star artists one will follow around the experience. While an intermission is promised by the ushers and bartenders, spectators should note that this intermission does not come until 2½ hours into the show. There are opportunities to use the restroom, but KPOP’s promenade production does keep audiences moving between scenes for the better part of two hours.
The dramatic tension in KPOP is scattered between three interlocking storylines corresponding with JTM’s different artists. The boys of F8, for example, are divided on whether they should maintain their Korean identities or assimilate their brand into American mainstream culture. This debate comes to a head during a fight between band members Oracle and Epic (Jinwoo Jung and Jason Tam), whose interaction is so stilted it borders on camp. Indeed, K-Pop and camp are two peas in a pod in this instance, but the production’s other storylines are performed in entirely different styles of acting, which creates some dissonance.
On the other hand, the girls of Special K work day and night in hopes of achieving impossible physical and vocal ideals. Callie (Sun Hye Park) is under incredible pressure to hone her American accent; Tiny D (Katie Lee Hill) must decide whether to get the plastic surgery operations that her managers feel will make her look more marketable; and Mina (Susannah Kim) struggles to smile for photos without looking like a sexy baby. While the overall show is fun in spirit, this trio of actresses succeeds in conveying the more serious issues lurking within the K-Pop machine, and celebrity culture in general.
In a participatory “focus group” session, JTM manager Jerry (James Seol) asks the audience directly why they think K-Pop has not seen equal success in the United States as it has seen elsewhere in the global pop-music industry. The answer is complicated, of course, and partially caught up somewhere in the historical intersection between racism and capitalism in the United States. While this dialogue between Korean and American mainstream cultures is interesting, its serious presence within the corny K-Pop factory universe is jarring. There must be some other way to embed these timely themes or culture and globalization more seamlessly within the world of the production.
While Park is charming as the bratty solo-artist MwE, her scene with her manager and mother-figure, Ruby (Vanessa Kai), does drag a bit—but through no fault of either talented actress. At the ripe old age of 26, MwE is threatened by being eclipsed by a younger member of Special K, Sonoma (Julia Abueva). Abueva and Park flaunt their impressive vocals during this scene, and all three women are fantastic actresses, but they ultimately struggle under the bulk of a script and lyrics that need cutting.
What should not be ignored, however, is that the KPOP experience approaches perfection during its moments of “musical theater,” which open and close this behemoth, nearly three-hour production. In the opening and final scenes, the audience is treated to pure, ecstatic spectacles of unapologetically poppy music and dance. During her final appearance as MwE, Park appears almost mirage-like in a feathered headdress and mirrored bustier (designed by Tricia Barsamian). The combined talents of Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting), Will Pickens (sound), and Phillip Gulley (projections and video) evoke the high-octane spectacle of an actual K-Pop concert, which are apparently immersive experiences in their own right. Overall, KPOP is a big, brave undertaking that promises to wow many more audience members with its undeniably charming spectacle. While some of its immersive and interactive wheels need oiling, the general experience is unforgettable.
KPOP runs through Oct. 21 at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd St.). Performances through are at 7 p.m. are Monday-Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Through Oct. 7 there are select matinees at 3 p.m. (with no performance on Oct. 2); from Oct. 9-21 matinees will be at 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Tickets through Oct. 7 are $45 (general) or $75 (premium), and can be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting arsnovanyc.com. Tickets after Oct. 9 are $75 general, $125 premium, with $25 “Under 30” rush tickets available.