theater review

KPOP’s Backstage Pass Gets You Only So Far

From KPOP, at Circle in the Square. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There’s a lot in the musical KPOP that makes for a successful show, including a winning ensemble, melodies that sneak into your ears and stay there, and rhythm-perfect choreography. But it has a curious inertia. It lacks drama. Not in the sense of tension between its characters—there’s plenty of bickering to observe between the characters at the musical’s fictional K-pop label as they prepare for a big American showcase—but in the sense of a thrust, an arc, propulsion. It feels as if the show has rushed out into the open water of Broadway and then gotten stuck, like a ship unable to catch the wind.

The main issue at hand seems to be adaptation. The version of KPOP you’re seeing on Broadway has been smushed into its current, commercial theater-standard, two-act, 2-hour-and-10-minute-including-intermission structure based on the immersive concept that was staged Off Broadway in 2017. There—in a production made by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, Woodshed Collective, and Ars Nova—attendees split off into groups to take a tour of a “factory” where singers and dancers prepared for their big American debut and revealed their pressures and anxieties along the way, with a special focus on the way the performers were contorting their personas to appeal to an American audiences, i.e., you, the people walking through the show. Sara Holdren, writing for Vulture, called it “a challenge wrapped up in glittery paper and presented to us as a gift.”

The Broadway version of KPOP, re-adapted by original book writer/conceiver Jason Kim and original director Teddy Bergman, retains a lot of that premise but loses the frisson that it had in close-up. This time around, the head of the label (it’s called RBY and she’s called Ruby, played by a scowling Jully Lee, who gets most of the laughs) is having a white American director named Harry (Aubie Merrylees) record video footage for a behind-the-scenes documentary at a rehearsal before the big showcase. There’s once again a three-part structure: you meet a girl-group called RTMIS, a boy-band named F8, and the big solo artist, MwE. What might’ve made sense while wandering from one room to another ends up feeling forced under a proscenium arch. Harry, standing in for one of those itinerant audience members, keeps asking the members of each group to say more about themselves, ostensibly fishing for more material for his film, and they keep, rightly, turning him down. It’s a consistent choice for their characters—they’re professionals!—but you’re also with Harry on the need for there to be some drama, any drama, to keep things interesting.

If the audience isn’t walking through the show, then the plot should move somewhere of its own accord, but it does so only reluctantly. The three groups each have their little arcs and compete for your attention in ways that drag down the forward motion. There’s only space for a glimpse at each kind of angst. Brad (Zachary Noah Piser, who has really mastered his boy-band pout) feels that being an American-born, half-Korean replacement for another member of F8 has turned the rest of the band against him. The women of RTMIS, who get the shortest shrift, chafe at the expectation to make themselves perfect but then make themselves perfect. MwE, played by Luna, a star of the actual K-pop group f(x) and veteran of musical theater in Korea (including Legally Blonde and, oh yes, Rebecca) gets a greatly expanded role, with a series of flashbacks that delineate her complicated relationship with Ruby. Those scenes contain the clearest dramatic arc, from Ruby acting as MwE’s surrogate mother to MwE’s feeling trapped by the success Ruby has built around her. If KPOP jettisoned the other two groups and more fully fleshed out this plot, there might be a version of a Dreamgirls somewhere in there. But as it stands, that story is rote, the kind of thing that might appear in any “Behind the Music” episode, or for that matter, any generic Broadway bio-musical.

But hey, we’re here mostly for the singing, and especially the dancing. Helen Park and Max Vernon’s songs are remarkably hooky recreations of K-pop numbers. In MwE’s big solo, “Super Star,” she reaches notes high enough to compete with whoever is belting Wicked in the theater upstairs. (Even so, those songs’ verisimilitude ends up working against them in a staged plot. You want them to express more of the characters’ emotions, not just act as demonstrations of their talent.) You feel for the dexterous ensemble performers, who seem to be working as hard as their characters to keep up Jennifer Weber’s choreography, which is both rigorous and speckled with light touches. The women of RTMIS, for instance, strike a group pose in which they look like they’re all aiming bows and arrows. KPOP ends, as the immersive version did, with the big showcase itself, a 20-minute supernova. You’ll be on your feet and rooting for the success of the members of the RBY label even if you’re not sure you know them well at all.

On Broadway, that potential success is ill-defined too. KPOP the show strains to accommodate the fact that K-pop, the genre, has become far more successful in America than it was five years ago. The original version posed the possibility of a Korean group making it big in America as an open question. Now, BTS has had multiple No. 1 singles, and the woman and her daughter settling into their seats next to me on Broadway arrived in Blackpink sweaters. Kim has sanded away a lot of the aspects of the plot about the American debut from KPOP, but you feel that initial fulcrum there like a phantom limb. (The members of F8 still sing a song called “Amerika (Checkmate).”) KPOP still operates as if it is introducing this world to the audience, but most of the audience is at least passably already familiar with that world.

You can imagine the way-too-safe thinking of Broadway investors that led to this: Hold off on producing a show about something you consider niche until it’s blown up, and then discover that premise is old hat. (They also may have started when it was still fresh. Workshopping a Broadway musical is one of the slowest processes in the popular arts. Even $200 million movies develop faster.) Trying to imagine the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, whatever accommodations were made to get this version of KPOP onstage, feels more engaging than what we’re seeing in front of us. Kim’s thing for implicating the audience and the system flares up in the occasional fight between Harry and someone from the label, but you want him to go all in. Throw up a call with the producers on those video screens on the stage. Show us what it took to get here.

KPOP is at Circle in the Square.

KPOP Offers a Not-Actually-All-Access Pass