Theater Review: KPOP Is Gangnam Style With Substance Beneath

From KPOP, by Ars Nova. Photo: Ben Arons

When my grandmother Jong Gung Hong was a young girl, her father piled the family into a small boat, covered the children with a tarp, and left their home near Pyongyang. She grew up in what we now call South Korea and eventually moved to Japan with dreams of becoming an actress and singer. Instead, while performing in a USO show in Tokyo, she met a young American Air Force officer, married him, moved to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and raised two children who never learned Korean or Japanese. (She was fluent in both, though her English was heavily accented as long as I knew her.)

Mamu, as we grandchildren called her, was constantly on my mind as I walked through the expansive, catchy, and cunning immersive performance called KPOP, a collaboration between Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective, commissioned and presented by Ars Nova. (Their last foray into environmental-musical spectacle inspired a cult following and burned brightly on Broadway before its unfortunate burnout). What would Mamu — I didn’t even know her given Korean name till I was practically an adult and finally thought to ask — have made of this outwardly flashy, deceptively shrewd investigation-cum-celebration of the peppy, glamorous, multibillion-dollar-musical genre that, as we’re pointedly told near the show’s beginning, has gained popularity “around the globe … with the exception of the United States?” Would she, like the initially disapproving father of President Moon (James Saito) — the head of the (imaginary) KPOP label whose “factory” we are touring — have surrendered to the sugary charm and thumping beat, eventually abandoning decorum to dance?

I think so. I mean, by the time the finale of KPOP comes around, if you’re not bopping along to the splashy, buoyant pop tunes by Helen Park and Max Vernon, well … maybe you don’t like puppies or rainbows either. KPOP’s exuberant young ensemble — 12 fierce triple-threats who portray the stars of JTM, the label run by President Moon and his wife Ruby (Vanessa Kai), herself a former pop star — makes this show difficult to resist.

And why would you want to? KPOP is a delicious spectacle. Woodshed Collective, specialists in staging large-scale immersive pieces of theater, has converted two floors of the A.R.T./New York building on 53rd Street into a maze of glitzy studios, rehearsal rooms, recording booths, offices, back hallways, and boudoirs — all part of a well-oiled machine that produces “the world’s best pop stars.” Tricia Barsamian’s clever costumes capture the simultaneous slickness and silliness of pop high fashion — the black-light-sensitive embellishments on the getups of the house boy band, F8 (pronounced “fate”), are a particularly fun touch. And Jennifer Weber’s super-synched contemporary choreography feels knowingly, playfully poptastic.

But KPOP is no mere sugar bomb. Underneath the glam and the (highly enjoyable) gimmickry, the show is a candid and increasingly discomfiting look at the struggles faced by Asian artists — be they pop stars or actors — trying to break into an American market. After all, this is the country that associates Asian accents with “delis and nail salons,” where the top three Memorable Performances by Asians that come to mind for most viewers are “Mister Miyagi, Jackie Chan, and the Mom on Fresh Off the Boat.”

These last words belong to Jerry Kim (in a confident and ultimately sympathetic performance by James Seol). Jerry is our emcee for the evening and the head of Crossover Productions, a high-powered entity specializing in the repackaging of foreign cultural imports to the U.S. As Jerry announces proudly, his company is “responsible for the likes of Shakira, Zara, Ikea, Hugh Jackman … and Le Pain Quotidien!”

An avowed “Bad Korean” (he was born in San Diego, can’t speak his parents’ native language, and doesn’t know “what a Gangnam is”), Jerry is a master of assimilation. He’s been hired by JTM at the behest of President Moon and Ruby to help their artists — they’re all platinum sensations in Korea and beyond, but have yet to assail that last and largest fortress of consumerism: America. We, the audience, are here as a focus group. As a bunch of American consumers, we’ve been recruited to help Jerry figure out how to sell KPOP to … us. “Crossover,” Jerry assures us, is “the agency whose mission is to launch rockets … into the American market!” (There are enough missile jokes in the show that it could reasonably have been retitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love KPOP.)

The stakes are high: We’re being asked to look into the eyes of these young artists and tell them what would make them more palatable to us as products, as if we’re doing a taste test. Indeed, when my group of roaming audience members visited the JTM dance studio, the merciless dance coach Jenn (Ebony Williams) snapped at her pupils, “This is where the sausage is made. When they leave, they should want the sausages! Right now, no one wants the sausages.”

“Um. Are we the sausages?” asks Tiny D. (in a smart, rightfully skeptical performance by Katie Lee Hill) — she’s the half-American member of JTM’s girl group Special K, the one who’s concerned about looking neither “Korean-Korean” nor “American-American.” Yes, Tiny, of course you’re the sausages.

And you’re the candy, too. Walking through the many rooms and encounters of KPOP often feels like a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory where the Oompa Loompas are on the edge of rebellion. But of course, that simile isn’t quite right — it’s actually the chocolate that’s coming to life and demanding to be recognized as more than well-packaged treats with added artificial American flavorings.

As they are for Wonka, sweetness and perfection are cardinal values in Moon’s factory — he even tells us the tragic story of how his father’s idea for artificial sweetener was stolen by the Americans who “invented” Sweet’N Low. “You are not empty calories,” Moon recalls his dying father telling him, “Go where I could not go. Take your family to America.”

It’s not subtle, but it works: KPOP isn’t empty calories. To the credit of the show’s co-conceiver and book writer, Jason Kim, and its director, Teddy Bergman, much of our immersive experience is an uncomfortable one. Whether we’re witnessing the ladies of Special K being pressured to lose their accents or have their faces molded by JTM’s in-house plastic surgeon (David Shih), or watching the young men of F8 feuding over the Americanization of their new album’s “most Korean song,” or spending time with MwE (a fantastic Ashley Park) — the label’s first and biggest star who, at 26, might already be getting traded in for a younger model — we’re never able to forget the ugliness that goes into manufacturing all this pretty.

Moreover, we’re prodded to reckon with our role here. KPOP is a challenge wrapped up in glittery paper and presented to us as a gift. This “American market” that finds French accents sexy and Asian accents cartoonish, that thinks of MwE (if it thinks of her at all) as the Korean Beyoncé, that prefers our Asians as sidekicks and sight gags instead of stars — this market isn’t some abstraction, it’s us. And the performers of KPOP, for all their smiling and even the frequent traditional bows of respect, look us straight in the eye and ask us, “Why?”

As the show drew to an explosive, glittery close, I thought of my grandmother, singing and dancing for a bunch of American GIs in the early ’50s in Tokyo. She might have been dazzled by KPOP’s lavish contemporary trappings, but I think she would have recognized a group of Asian performers leaving it all on the floor in the hopes of winning American acceptance and approval. This is the phenomenon that KPOP is skewering and, ultimately, turning triumphantly on its head.

KPOP is at A.R.T./New York Theatres through October 7.

Theater Review: KPOP Is Gangnam Style With Substance