There’s an old showbiz saying: Give ’em a boffo ending and they’ll forgive everything that came before. I found myself applying that maxim to the exuberant, candy-colored KPOP, an immersive and satirical introduction to Korean pop music at Ars Nova that ends with a legitimately mind-blowing concert.
Two hours of showbiz angst and crossover dreams all lead to a sensational payoff. We crowd into the large, open, club-like space where the show begins; light units swivel and spew columns of light as the DJ spins a sick beat, and we cheer the talent strutting along the runway like rabid fans. Never heard of these acts? It doesn’t matter: Just try and stop from shaking your booty during the set by adorable diva MwE (Ashley Park) or the Whitman’s Sampler of cute boys that make up F8, and the world-dominating, ultra-fierce Special K. The latter, an ass-kicking all-girl band, will break your heart and then Nae Nae all over the shards. Audiences should be forgiven for demanding CDs as they exit through the lobby.
What precedes this amazing finale is a combination soap opera and behind-the-scenes lampoon of an entertainment niche most Americans probably don’t know. K-pop is a global juggernaut that raked in $4.7 billion in sales last year, whose top 200 artists’ videos were watched 24 billion times on YouTube. So, why haven’t you heard about it? Because, um…racism? That would be the glib answer hinted at by book writer Jason Kim. But equally plausible—borne out by numerous training scenes that show how the K-pop sausage gets made—is that this hyper-derivative genre is simply too knocked-off, even by contemporary shlock-pop standards.
We are introduced to this world by promoter Jerry Kim (James Seol), a self-described “bad Korean” who grew up in San Diego, doesn’t speak Korean, and has been hired by Seoul-based impresarios Moon (James Saito) and Ruby (Vanessa Kai) to help them crack the American market. Jerry treats the audience as one big focus group and the two floors of the A.R.T./New York Theaters as a K-pop factory. The idea is to herd us through various rooms where we get to know the aforementioned boy- and girl bands learn the ropes through blood, sweat, and tears. We see, up close, how star-struck young Koreans are bullied into pop-star perfection. The young singers’ gauntlet of horrors includes a sinister plastic surgeon (David Shih), who offers to work on singers’ eyelids and other attributes. “In Korea, they call me Michelangelo,” he boasts. “I was profiled in the news last year for creating the perfect Korean face.” In other segments, we watch grueling dance and vocal training, and an anguished showdown between the members of F8, who quarrel over the Americanization of their lyrics. Some of the dialogue and plotting of these scenes are canned and superficial, but the charismatic actors commit fully.
Directed with maximum verve and style by Teddy Bergman, and featuring parody-perfect songs by Helen Park and Max Vernon, KPOP benefits most from its youthful, indefatigable ensemble. Just as actual K-pop, by crazily synthesizing ’80s bubblegum pop, R&B, techno and hip-hop, seems almost the real thing, these triple threats deserve their own stadiums of adoring, screaming fans.
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen
Extended through Saturday, October 21
(Or, Support Ars Nova and Woodshed Collective’s high-octane musical at the Fair Pay Initiative benefit show on Saturday, October 7. Your ticket will help pay for the living wages of the theater’s actors.)
See KPOP before they head off on their world tour; let us secure you tickets.