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Theatre in Review: KPOP (Ars Nova/Ma-Yi Theater Company/Woodshed Collective)

Jason Tam. Photo: Ben Arons

KPOP is such an audacious undertaking that it required three companies to get it on -- and, only a few minutes into it, you'll understand why. Consider this premise: On entering the ART/New York Theatres -- every square inch of which has apparently been commandeered for this production -- we are introduced to a trio of KPOP acts. (That's Korean pop, for those not in the know, although the songs, by Helen Park and Max Vernon, make the case that bubble gum is an international language.) Our host for the evening, Jerry -- a glad-handing Korean American Ryan Seacrest type with an expensive-looking haircut -- introduces us to JTM Entertainment, the record label, which turns out hit songs and performers with an efficiency Henry Ford might envy. It is run by Moon and Ruby, an impressively slick married couple who are all too aware of their roles as godfather and godmother of Korea's music scene. As Ruby notes, sort of modestly, "I feel strange introducing myself, because most people in Asia know who I am."

Jerry informs us that we are a focus group, assembled to advise JTM's acts on their efforts at crossing over to the American market. Next, we are divided into groups and walked through the company's empire, studying how its stars are made and marketed. My group was taken first to a hallway, where we saw excerpts from a documentary video about MwE (pronounced "m-wee"), the in-house diva. (It is titled "I Dream of MwE.") This sequence provides the first evidence that Jason Kim, author of the show's book, has a faultless ear for showbiz clichés and the absurdities rattling around inside their tinselly sentiments. MwE is played to the hilt by Ashley Park, from the riotously unspontaneous way she poses for the camera, tossing her curls and smiling falsely, to the canned confidences she offers her fans. (Every day, she's grateful for them and the love they offer her.)

Next, we were taken into a bizarrely stylized room -- decorated with white fur, birch trees, and mother of pearl collages -- for a private audience with MwE. In the flesh, she is sullen and artificial, deflecting softball "approved" questions from the audience ("Why are you so beautiful?") and initially refusing to sing her latest hit, the all-too-aptly named "Wind Up Doll." The scene devolves into a power struggle between the seething MwE and the glacially composed Ruby. We learn that MwE was taken from her mother, a professional diver, at an early age by Moon and Ruby, who trained her in the ways of stardom. Chafing at her life of glamorous captivity and exhausted by one too many eighteen-month tours, MwE rebels, selecting for herself her next hit song -- a ballad, which Ruby dismisses as being "off-brand" for a singer whose catalogue consists entirely of up-tempo hits. Without raising her voice, Ruby reminds MwE that, at 26, she is dangerously over-the-hill, adding, "You stand there and get by and people love you anyway, even though you have no actual skills. Do you know what that makes you?" Delivering the coup de grâce, she produces Jessica, of the girl group Special K, who is being groomed as the label's new solo star. (She is to be renamed "Sonoma.") "She's your little sister now," Ruby adds, smiling.

The interaction between the sweetly lethal Ruby, the flummoxed MwE, and Jessica, who fawns on MwE one minute yet is fully prepared to out-sing her the next, is strong enough to stand on its own as a one-act play. But KPOP -- a cross between a Frederick Wiseman documentary and a special Asian edition of Us Magazine, with a splash of Dreamgirls for extra flavor -- teems with scenes of grueling work, festering suspicion, and expertly delivered backstabbing, while simultaneously asking questions about cultural identity in an entertainment industry in which whiteness remains the norm. Scene after scene reveals how -- through a combination of blood, sweat, and tears -- inexperienced young talents are processed into perfectly synthetic simulacrums of idealized youth. "This is where the sausage is made," notes Jenn, the caustic choreographer who puts the kids through their paces with the unforgiving rigor of a sergeant at Parris Island.

Haunting all of the characters is a nagging question: How much of themselves must they give up to be acceptable in the lucrative US market? Jerry warns his performers about "the accent problem," adding, "Americans hate Asian accents." Tiny D, also of Special K, meets with the staff plastic surgeon: she is half-Asian and half-American, and she hopes he can give her a singular identity -- but, as she tearfully confesses, she can't decide which way to go. The doctor studies her coolly and says, "I heard you're a size four" -- clearly too big to be a KPOP star. A meet-and-greet with the boy band F8 nearly collapses because the long-term members resent the new guy, an Asian American named Epic, who, without their knowledge, has recorded their Korean songs with English lyrics.

Cramming in all these scenes, and many more, is an enormous undertaking, which makes it all the more remarkable that Kim's book is so consistently mordant, to say nothing of Park and Vernon's insanely catchy songs, the detail-perfect robotic moves by the choreographer Jennifer Weber, and Teddy Bergman's direction, which corrals the action across any number of playing areas. Clearly, each of the producing organizations has brought something to the table: Ars Nova, for its knack with out-of-the-box musical theatre; Woodshed Collective, for its expertise in immersive theatre; and Ma-Yi Theater Company for its deep pool of Asian American acting talent. In addition to Park, whose MwE channels every diva in distress that ever graced a tabloid cover, there are several standout performances: James Saito as Moon, behind his smiling, professional manner haunted by the ghost of his father, a failed inventor; Vanessa Kai as Ruby, who never veers off script except to pull an erring star back into line; James Seol as the oily Jerry, a self-confessed "bad Korean;" Julia Abueva as Jessica, who is ready to snatch stardom away from MwE; Sun Hye Park as Callie, torn between ethnicities and eaten up over it; Ebony Williams, radiating waves of bad attitude as Jenn; Jiho Kang as Lex, F8's pink-haired male makeup specialist; and Jason Tam was Epic, who smooth-talks his bandmates into surrendering their native language in hopes of taking the US by storm.

The production/scenic design, by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, is a marvel of layout and planning, not to mention crowd control, and the main playing area provides plenty of positions for Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the lighting designer, to display both her naturalistic style and concert-lighting chops. Tricia Barsamian's costumes include some eye-popping, skin-tight peek-a-boo body suits for MwE (not to mention her copper-spangled sheath dress), plus a series of schoolgirl outfits for the Special K girls and boy-band casual styles for the cast of F8. I wish that Will Pickens' sound design was at times clearer; it's not always easy to tell when the performers are singing in Korean and when in English. (Then again, this style of music doesn't favor crystal-clear pronunciation and most, if not all, of the music is recorded.)

It's also true that, following the late-in-the-evening intermission, the action retreats with unseemly haste from the script's acrid truths in favor of an upbeat concert finale. Moon and Ruby's manipulative, double-dealing ways are forgotten as Moon informs us, "I've been going about this the wrong way. We don't need to cross over to you. You need to cross over to us." This wholesale abandonment of what has gone before would be more disconcerting if the medley that follows didn't raise the roof, the JTM kids cutting loose with enough unbridled energy to generate an audience frenzy. Like them, KPOP, the show, knows just how far to go to win over an audience. It offers provocative ideas set to an irresistible beat; just try to resist it. -- David Barbour

(27 September 2017)

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