When KPOP premiered off-Broadway in 2017 (jointly produced by Woodshed Collective, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Ars Nova), K-pop music was a worldwide sensation that hadn’t quite broken in America; the frame device of the piece involved bringing in a marketing consultant who’d successfully launched IKEA and Zara into the U.S. market. Five years, a global pandemic, and BTS later, the show comes to Broadway as another thing entirely. Granted, the experience was always going to be radically different: an immersive behind-the-scenes show that positioned the audience as flies on the wall in the recording booths, rehearsal studios, dressing rooms, and plastic surgery consultations of a group of K-pop stars, versus, well, Broadway, even with the core creative team of book writer Jason Kim, music writers Helen Park and Max Vernon, director Teddy Bergman, and choreographer Jennifer Weber intact. But with BTS, Blackpink, Stray Kids, and other K-pop bands firmly ensconced on the U.S. charts, the reimagined KPOP lands in a cultural climate hungry for the music and the artists themselves. (Which is how you get actual K-pop artist Luna playing fictional K-pop artist MwE, along with several other alumni of real-world K-pop bands in the cast.)
KPOP version 1 was all about process—how the sausage gets made, as one of the dance coaches said in a rehearsal studio–and made audiences wait till the end of the show to see how the final, glittering product came together. KPOP now is dedicated to showing off that product, with full-on production numbers forming the spine of the show, interspersed with a token glimpse here and there to remind you of the production line that takes in young singer/dancers and spits out stars. It’s a K-pop concert as much as musical theater, with the roar of the crowd becoming an integral part of the show (and if I’m seeing a K-pop concert, I’d certainly rather be in the not-a-bad-seat-in-the-house 775-seat thrust-stage mini-arena that set designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has constructed than the nosebleed seats at Citi Field). Whether that’s a good thing or a bad one will depend on how you prefer your pop illusions: unadulterated, or tempered by reality. (Personally, I prefer the tart-to-sweet balance a little on the tarter side than this incarnation of KPOP provides, but YMMV.)
The new frame for the piece is a concert documentary of the fictional record label RBY’s first American tour. RBY–so named after its founder, Ruby (Jully Lee), a failed K-pop artist who’s turned her ambition into creating a new generation of stars–is bringing one girl group, RTMIS (the initials of its members–played by Min, BoHyung, Kate Mina Lin, Amy Keum, and Julia Abueva–pronounced Artemis), one boy group, F8 (“Fate”: Jiho Kang, John Yi, Joshua Lee, Kevin Woo, Abraham Lim, Eddy Lee, James Kho, and Zachary Noah Piser), and solo artist MwE (Luna) to America. She’s hired an American film crew headed by Harry (Aubie Merrylees, channeling Zach from A Chorus Line with way too much hamminess and the creepy twist of his secretly wiring the dressing rooms for video).
The entire film device feels more than a little cynical–like they’re building in a “tour guide” for a theoretical white Broadway audience–especially as Harry zeros in on Brad (Zachary Noah Piser), the American-raised, half-Korean new addition to F8, inserted by Ruby specifically for the American tour, as his “hook.” Or at least as the band member with the least allegiance to/fear of Ruby; Harry has zero success in getting any of the RTMIS members to break ranks and give him a scoop (probably accurate, but does not make for a lot of engagement with those characters). (Fortunately, the show eventually reveals it’s at least partly self-aware of that dynamic, and Harry does not dominate the entire show.) And for a show with a considerable investment in its video setup both thematically and technically, it doesn’t really do all that much with the technology, other than spying on conflicts between MwE, Ruby, and MwE’s boyfriend Juny (Jinwoo Jung) in the dressing room. It certainly doesn’t use the video to highlight any conflicts between the backstage reality of these performers’ lives and the polished performance we see onstage.
Which is part of the problem. The show vaguely gestures at that conflict–we see the years of labor MwE has put into constructing her persona in a series of flashbacks; we know that a member of F8 was summarily fired to make room for Brad, causing conflict in the ranks; a few witty exchanges indicate how little “authentic” Korean-ness inheres in the art form–but with generic sketches at best. The lyrics of some of the songs have a more acerbic take, if you pay attention–MwE’s ”Wind Up Doll,” for instance, or F8’s “Amerika”–but it’s hard to catch behind all the flash.
Similarly, while we get a few perfunctory gestures at backstory from one member of RTMIS and one of F8 (Brad again, as Harry tries to bond with him) and a sketched-in crisis of conscience for MwE, forced to choose between love and stardom, there’s no real effort at building characters for the audience to invest in. (If the underlying message is intended to be how replaceable and interchangeable are the building blocks of K-pop stardom, they’ve got that right.)
So what are we left with? High energy performances throughout, with kickass singing and dancing from all fourteen of the band members. Flashy, glittery costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, which capture the K-pop aesthetic perfectly, but only in the case of Ruby tell us anything about character. Jennifer Weber’s heart-pumping choreography is the real winner of the Broadway transfer, as it now gets shown off at every turn. But with the thinnest of plot and no real investment in the characters, it’s hard to care if the fictional tour succeeds or fails, if MwE chooses love of stardom, if Ruby conquers America. The production numbers bring the house down, but there’s not much else there. Instead of the look behind the facade, rich with detail and meticulously designed, that the show originally provided, we get a hall of mirrors with not much to see behind the costumes and the lights, except the irony of seeing K-pop successes transform themselves back into K-pop strivers, and of seeing a fictional reconstruction of the K-pop machine be just as real as the real thing.