When the Ars Nova production “KPOP” first premiered Off Broadway in 2017, the seven-member boy band BTS had only just broken through on the US charts and most Americans were unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Korean pop. The show offered a timely and telling introduction — and an immersive theatrical experience in which audience members moved in small groups through various rehearsal rooms and venues to get a literal BTS (behind-the-scenes) view of the rigorous training that Korean pop stars and groups endure.
Now a version of that show has arrived on Broadway at a time when the general knowledge of K-pop is far more widespread — and the Circle in the Square Theater staging necessitates a different approach to the material. Book writer Jason Kim and director Teddy Bergman have recognized the show, which opened Sunday, as part live concert, part mockumentary — offering backstories (including video projections of backstage moments) of an aspiring K-pop label run by the domineering diva Ruby (Jully Read).
The concert portions of the evening are a cotton-candy delight. Helen Park and Max Vernon have written a handful of pulsing K-pop gems that feel like they’d fit right into a Seoul top 40 playlist, with pulsing beats, solo vocal runs, tight harmonies and occasional interjections of rap. The talented cast deliver the goods, aided by Jennifer Weber’s crisp and energetic choreography, Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi’s flashy costumes, Jiyoun Chang’s dramatic lighting and Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s sleek scenic design.
Former K-pop star Luna is a particular standout as the struggling solo artist MwE, delivering soaring vocals on ballads such as “Phoenix” that allow her to project some vulnerability about surviving a star system that can be brutal on individual artists.
It’s in the book scenes that “KPOP” struggles in ways that should be familiar to anyone who’s sat through “Motown” and other jukebox musicals that seek to both depict and soften the darker aspects of the music industry. Here, it’s the struggle between Ruby and MwE, whom we see in flashbacks as she’s taken in by Ruby as a young girl after her mother de ella rejects her and then exploited by that same surrogate maternal figure to achieve an always elusive level of perfection. (“You’re 13 now — you’re a grownup,” Ruby tells her young charge de ella while mocking her de ella “tree trunk legs” after she dares to eat cake on her birthday de ella.)
The present-day MwE bristles at these pressures and longs to escape with her hunky guitar-instructor boyfriend (Jinwoo Jung)—or at least to carve out some agency in her career choices. But the plotting here is a bit of a muddle because we’re told both that MwE hasn’t yet succeeded as a solo artist (“You thought I’d be a star by now”) AND that Ruby really needs her to launch her music label in the lucrative US market.
The other backstories are flat by comparison: The five-woman girl group dubbed RTMIS seems mostly anxious about the prospect of MwE scuttling their launch event, while the eight-man boy band F8 (pronounce “fate,” of course) is freezing out a new American-born member, Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), whose Korean isn’t as fluent as the others’.
Oddly, the show uses a velvet glove to treat Ruby, the sort of imperious, unfeeling boss who actually says things like “You’re lucky I let you breathe my air.” Not only does she not get her comeuppance here, there is no attempt to explain or humanize her behavior de ella—and she never gets a song of her own.
Instead, Jason Kim has cooked up a villain in videographer Harry (Aubie Merrylees) to stir the pot—and create some onstage tension between the musical numbers. He’s the one who encourages Brad into on-camera confessionals that sow distrust among the F8 members, and who sends a cameraman to record the squabbles between Ruby and her young protégé from her. He’s also the only non-Asian in the cast — and the show makes much of his outsider status from him to bring the disparate characters back together for a musical finale that’s equal parts reunion and catharsis.
Like the genre it celebrates, “KPOP” works best when you let yourself get caught up in the sensation of the music and the precision dance moves — and try not to think too deeply.