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Theatre in Review: KPOP (Circle in the Square Theatre)

Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

It grieves me to say it, but KPOP has lost its pop -- also its snap and crackle. A critical and popular success five years ago in an immersive, walk-through production that was surely unsustainable for more than a limited run, it has been converted into a conventional book musical, in the process losing almost everything that made it distinctive. What's left are some kicky, if repetitive, tunes and shockingly slipshod dramaturgy. I cannot think of a show that, in its commercial transfer, has managed so thoroughly to shed so much of its stardust.

Off Broadway, KPOP took up every inch of performance space (and more) at ART/New York Theatres, which was transformed into the headquarters of a Korean entertainment empire run by the married couple Moon and Ruby. The audience -- supposedly a focus group assembled to advise Moon and Ruby on crossing over to the American market -- was divided up and guided through various rooms for behind-the-scenes revelations of grueling training sessions, enforced plastic surgery, and All About Eve-style backstabbing, all in the service of processing unformed, underage personalities into plasticized images of idealized youth. Much of this involved making the performers acceptable to potential Western fans; hence the makeovers, an intense focus on fitness, and nagging worries about "too-Asian" accents.

The centerpiece of the action was a press conference featuring in-house diva MwE, who made no secret of her disaffection while giving canned answers to softball questions; she also had some memorably caustic exchanges with Ruby, who already had MwE's younger, sleeker, and more compliant replacement on tap. Thanks to these elements, KPOP was a dagger-sharp piece of social observation, an intensive probing of a show-business sausage factory spiked with pointed questions about race and identity, climaxing in a concert that all but blew the roof off the building.

Much has been left behind in the trip to the Circle in the Square, most notably, the show's sardonic point of view. Moon is gone, as is Jerry, the event's oleaginous, Ryan-Seacrest-style host. The action now takes place at a rehearsal for a US concert, dubbed "the American takeover," featuring three of Ruby's acts. But MwE is hiding in her dressing room and refuses to come out; without her, the event is certain to be a bust. In addition to this agita, Harry, a documentary filmmaker hired to shoot a promotional video, is sneaking around, hoping to capture something more authentic; a catfight or two would be catnip to him.

Jason Kim's original book had a faultless ear for showbiz cliches and a nifty way of letting us discover, on the fly, the tensions simmering behind the engineered smiles. Here, he waters down the satire, opting for half-hearted truisms about the heartbreak of fame. Flashbacks reveal MwE and Ruby's long history, which, marked by manipulation and emotional blackmail, should make for volatile, go-for-broke melodrama. (Abandoned by her parents, MwE was taken in by Ruby, who relentlessly groomed her for stardom.) But their scenes, including a tussle over MwE's desire to record a simple, heartfelt ballad that Ruby dismisses as "off-brand," are sketchy and stilted. And the characters are a pale echo of Gypsy's Madam Rose and Louise; like Rose, Ruby is a failed star who lives through her protégés. MwE has acquired a suitor in Juny, a poor-but-honest guitar teacher -- "Did you go to boyfriend school?", she wonders about this perfectly bland male ingenue -- but his presence does little to raise the dramatic stakes.

Given enough attention and some punchy writing, MwE's attempts at getting free from Ruby could provide a solid dramatic spine. But too much time is taken up with lesser subplots. In addition to Harry's scheming at capturing real backstage drama, the boy band F8 is riddled with dissension over the replacement of a longtime member with Brad, an American who, Ruby thinks, will win over US audiences; it's a narrative gambit rendered nonsensical when half the group is revealed to be American-born. There's also some mild infighting among the singers in the girl group RTMS, which goes nowhere. Adding to the flatness of these scenes, no one in F8 or RTMS has any individual characteristics; they are mouthpieces distinguished only by their amusingly outré costumes, designed by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi (aided by the hair and wig designs of Mia M. Neal). Perusing my Playbill after the show, I couldn't recall any of these performers.

The songs, music and lyrics by Helen Park (also responsible for music production and arrangements) and Max Vernon, have the fun of authentic KPOP -- I bow to nobody in my admiration for BTS' "Butter" -- and they are staged by Jennifer Weber with the fanatic attention to precision that is the hallmark of the KPOP genre; her choreography here is much livelier than in the recently opened & Juliet. But, as is true of many musicals that drew on a limited pop vocabulary, the songs are pitifully inadequate for the purposes of storytelling. "Still I Love You," meant to establish MwE's I'll-do-anything yearning for stardom, is surprisingly weak. Similarly, "Super Star," the first-act finale, meant to mark the moment when MwE's career hits the stratosphere, falls short of being a showstopper. The mixed-race Brad has a moderately touching ballad, "Halfway," and "Mute Bird," MwE's self-penned "personal" number, offers some insight into her unhappiness. The rest of the numbers interrupt the narrative rather than helping it to move forward.

The New York Times critic Jesse Green got himself in hot water for his KPOP review, in part for noting that audiences might be put off by the show's frequent use of the Korean language. It's a strange comment, since surtitles are employed and, in any case, the intentions of the scenes are never in doubt. The songs typically begin in Korean, switching to English about halfway through, something that isn't always obvious given the highly processed sound of Park's arrangements and the general lack of attention to diction. Then again, they might as well be in Esperanto for all the meaning they carry. Lyrics like "In my own style/Like if you like It, woah/We're here to wow, wanna know how?/Look at us, look at us, look right now" or "Careful 'fore we start/Left a trail of broken hearts/'Cause I'm good at bein' a bad, bad boy" make the average Eurovision Song Contest entry sound like the work of Cole Porter.

Teddy Bergman's direction is efficient at shuffling between onstage numbers, backstage confrontations, and lengthy video sequences, less so at getting incisive performances from his cast. Admittedly, I may have been at a disadvantage because, at the performance I attended Luna, the authentic KPOP star who plays MwE, was out -- her understudy, Amy Keum, was solid -- although the character isn't present enough to dominate the action. As Ruby, Jully Lee has her moments -- deflating MwE's artistic aspirations, she says, "You wanna know the two saddest words in all of language? Singer-songwriter" -- but I sorely missed the steely warfare between Ashley Park and Vanessa Kai in the Off-Broadway production. Zachary Noah Piser is appealing as Brad. Aubie Merrylees is ideally sleazy and self-serving as Harry.

The best part of the show is its inventive production design. Gabriel Hainer Evansohn's abstract set, which looks like a collection of sound waves, is -- except for a retracting thrust stage -- entirely made up of video panels. Both projection designer Peter Nigrini and lighting designer Jiyoun Chang provide plenty of sparkle without going over the top until the finale, when plenty of rock-out effects are warranted. (Even in this sequence, the sound by Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister is bright and lively without being earsplitting.) Nigrini's imagery -- of the cosmos, breaking waves, and molten lava -- never steals focus from the cast; his system also fully supports the live video. Chang's lighting is fizzy and colorful, effortlessly catching the beat of each song. One especially eye-catching effect is a row of jewel tones that outlines the stage in several scenes. What could have been an overbearing sound-and-light show is rendered with impressive skill by all hands.

Still, it is shocking to see how Kim, Park, and Vernon have participated in neutering what was one a musical with real bite. I've heard it said that, in 2017, the general feeling was the KPOP industry needed to be explicitly explained to a general audience and, in 2022, such exposition was no longer necessary. Fair enough, but when you take something out, you need to replace it; a show with a sharp profile has been transmuted into something much tamer and less interesting. Indeed. it's hard to identify the target audience for KPOP; surely, fans of the genre would prefer real thing to a Broadway pastiche, and, in its current incarnation, it offers few of the pleasures -- like character and drama -- of musical theatre. If you don't have these, what is left to enjoy? --David Barbour

(5 December 2022)

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