Monday, November 28, 2022


Review of the Saturday, November 12, 2022 preview performance at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. Starring Luna. Book by Jason Kim. Music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon. Scenic design by Gabriel Hanier Evansohn. Costume design by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi. Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister. Choreography by Jennifer Weber. Direction by Teddy Bergman. 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: D

When I was young, it was The Osmonds and The Jacksons. For my parents, it was The Temptations and The Four Seasons; my sister was smitten with New Kids on the Block and The Backstreet Boys. Somewhere in there, it was the "Thriller" zombie dance and Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation." Every generation seems to have its attachment to tight- dancing pop stars, and my teenage niece and nephew have their favorites, too, especially BTS and BlackPink. And so, I went into KPOP with the hope of finding out what this international phenomenon is all about. While there are some things that are quite good about this new show at the Circle in the Square, unfortunately, as a piece of musical theater, it is much less than adequate.

F8 (left), RTMIS (right)

Under the guise of a behind-the-scenes documentary about the introduction of K-Pop to the U.S. market through a solo artist, MwE, a boy group, F8, and a girl group, RTMIS, the show makes the point repeatedly that what we are seeing is happening today, which seems an odd choice given that KPop has ruled the American pop scene for years now. Actually, the entire framing device - including flashbacks and "hidden camera" footage - feels like it’s all a day late and a dollar short. A lot of that may have been forgiven had the book scenes (by Jason Kim) and the awkward staging by Teddy Bergman not been so laughably amateurish. Scenes abruptly end and the cast walks off the stage, with no attempt to offer smooth (let alone clever) transitions.

Most hampered by this are the actors saddled with the roles of Harry, the documentary director/producer (Aubie Merrylees), and Ruby (Jully Lee), the KPop mogul behind the performers, as they must put across dialogue meant to cause tension, but that is more similar to those moments in old Scooby Doo cartoons when the bad guy is unmasked. I'll admit that I laughed out loud when Ruby discovers she is being filmed while browbeating her protege, and reacts with a hyperbolic rant reminiscent of a telenovela. It doesn't help that it is being shown on a giant set of screens with the quality of an 80's camcorder.

Other times, it is so predictable you know what is going to be said verbatim before a syllable is even uttered. Nowhere is this more obvious than the scenes where Harry tries to get each of the acts to turn on Ruby, and later, to pit them against each other. And even then, there is no new territory covered here, either. MwE (a very winning Luna, a real-life K-Pop star) has no self-esteem and fears disappointing her boss when she wants more than superstardom, while the girl group (woefully underused here) begins infighting over whether or not they should quit just before their years of work are about to pay off, and the 8 member boy group (F8 - get it?) are pissed because a new member has been added when another quits. Brad is already as great as the rest of them, and the others resent him for "skipping to the head of the line." (In a rare clever bit, they try to be really angry because he is actually American, and it turns out a few others are Americans, too, but have gotten by acting like they really only speak Korean.) There's a little more to the plot, but why ruin it all for you? You probably can guess it all, anyway.

Fortunately, the best moments happen between the silly book scenes. Some are visual. Gabriel Hanier Evansohn's scenic design is mostly made up of video/light panels and strategically placed TV screens, allowing for smooth transitions between backstage scenes and "in concert" numbers. He makes great use of the odd space, making it feel both like a traditional theater space and a concert arena. Similarly, the costumes, by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, straddle both the "real world" and the K-Pop machine - the finale costumes are pretty spectacular. All of that said, the technical star of the show is the spectacular lighting - designed by Jiyoun Chang - and the breathtaking floor projections - designed by Peter Nigrini. It really is a shame that something that looks so good is otherwise so poor.

Where KPOP really shines is in the dance numbers created by Jennifer Weber. The routines are dazzling in their precision and evolution of movement formations, and the hand/arm choreography is pretty clever, too. These numbers are also obviously where the company feels most confident - their swagger is intoxicating. It probably shouldn't be a surprise that these numbers are so good, since the cast is stacked with actual K-Pop stars. Another thing that elevates the numbers is the strategic use of Korean lyrics (Helen Park and Max Vernon), lending a sincere authenticity to it all. (One wishes some of the English lyrics weren't so awkward - "This is my Korea" rhymes with "This is my story-ah.")

Thankfully, there are two bright spots in the show: leading lady Luna, an international star in her own right, and Patrick Park - an amazing understudy - in the featured role of Brad, the new member of F8. She has a magnetic presence and genuine star quality; perfectly cast, she deserves a much better vehicle. Mr. Park also has that elusive "it" quality, with triple-threat capabilities on full display. I look forward to seeing more from both of these stars of tomorrow.

So, the musical theater part of me left shaking my head in, well, disgust and disappointment. A revival of Dreamgirls would cover the same ground, and better, too. The optimist in me was glad to have discovered some new talent. But most of all, I learned that what I suspected all along was correct: every generation has its version of dancing-in-unison-to-pop-music. This time around it is wrapped up in big shoes, mismatched pieces of clothing in a rainbow of pastel colors, and a coy innocence mixed with a subversive sexual androgyny. All of them tease with wordless promises of kisses and smooth moves. Anyone older than Gen Z might call to mind Madonna, Elvis or any of The Beatles. In other words, K-Pop and KPOP hasn't come up with anything really new, but it nudges the boundaries just enough to at least seem current. 

📸: M. Murphy

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