Any show at Circle in the Square has that venue’s in-the-round shape as a built-in boon. It is immediately more interactive, more immersive than any other Broadway space—as seen in previous productions as different as Fun Home, Oklahoma!, Chicken & Biscuits, and American Buffalo.
In the musical-meets-concert KPOP (to April 16, 2023), directed by Teddy Bergman and presented in association with the Ars Nova where the show began its critically acclaimed life off-Broadway, we watch two K-pop bands—an eight-member boy group (F8) and a five-member girl one (RTMIS)—preparing for their New York premiere, their every rehearsed number and move being followed by a documentary film crew. There is also MwE (played by Luna, former member of the K-pop girl group f(x)) who may be looking to make a bid for independence, both professionally as a solo singer, and romantically with the handsome and sweet Juny (Jinwoo Jung), who just wants a quiet life teaching guitar.
However, MwE’s strict and exacting overseer Ruby (Jully Lee)—who runs the KPOP business juggernaut MwE sings under and has done since the age of 9, wants something very different for her: professional success at any cost to match what Ruby feels she has sacrificed for MwE. It is one of the oldest performing stories of time: the adult living through the child, and instead of listening to what they really want, remaining ruthlessly focused on their career ascendancy. “If you’re not number one, you don’t exist,” Ruby says.
MwE and members of the girl band make it clear how much all-consuming physical rigor is necessary—the endless rehearsals from a young age, perfection demanded to make “every move, super precise.” As RTMIS member Sonoma (Julia Abueva) says, “You fight. Fight until it’s exactly right.”
Following the band members is white documentary director Harry (Aubie Merrylees) and a nameless camera operator (Major Corda), who are constantly berated for doing their jobs; any softball question to the people he is employed to be following is treated as a grave, potential controversy—as if Frost was grilling Nixon about Watergate.
KPOP is an important show—both in terms of Korean/Asian representation on stage and off, and in the audience. Significant parts of the show are spoken and sung in Korean. The audience for KPOP is a visibly, welcomingly mixed one, both in terms of age and ethnicity. There were lots of children with parents, teenagers, and young adults at the show this critic attended. (In a forthcoming article, The Daily Beast will talk to those involved in the show about its Broadway-changing importance, and the fan response audible outside every performance—eruptions of cheers and whoops, more akin to a pop concert than a Broadway show, await the actors as they leave after every performance.)
In the boy band, the main conflict comes from the Korean band members, led by Jun Hyuk (former K-pop star Kevin Woo), freezing out the biracial band member Brad (Zachary Noah Piser, the first Asian American actor to play the title role of Dear Evan Hansen full time on Broadway).
In the musical all the boys sing in Korean, while Brad dissonantly sings in English. Brad speaks about how the racism he has faced growing up made him hate his mom. “Like, she handed me a big steaming bowl of soondubu for dinner one night, and I threw it at the wall, screaming, Why can’t you make me a peanut butter and jelly?! I don’t think she knew what to do, so… she looked at my dad and started crying.”
He knows how he is being used, and where it leaves him with his bandmates. “Ruby kicks out Leo to bring in the American guy for the American takeover, and they’re like, who the hell is this kid? They only see whatever half of me that they wanna see. And to be honest, I don’t blame them. Every morning, I have to ask myself, do I have to be Brad today or do I have to be Byung-Woo?”
This is said, but not really examined in any greater depth. Jun Hyuk makes it clear how Brad’s presence makes the rest of the band feel. “Do you know how hard we’ve all been working? Since we were kids? Every person here has fought for it, for years, decades, and you, you waltz right in, and you immediately start thinking about yourself—trying to stand out—when you should be thinking of the band. And then we get here, and you… It’s so easy for you. It’s not easy for us here.”
“In its current form, ‘KPOP’ feels like a concert at its heart, rather than a musical with an engrossing story.”
Two distinct strands emerge during KPOP. One is an amped-up music and dancing extravaganza, which when it really takes light is visually and aurally exciting (the boy band’s “Shake It” is a total thriller near the end). Leaning into its concert heart, the show relies on the smooth execution of its songs (Helen Park and Max Vernon), alongside excellent choreography (Jennifer Weber), and maximalist lighting (Jiyoun Chang), sound design (Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister), projections (Peter Nigrini), and costumes (Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi).
In contrast, its attempt at drama feels like meager filler, and unconvincingly glued on to the more music-y musical the production seems to be straining to be. In its current form, KPOP feels like a concert at its heart, rather than a musical with an engrossing story, featuring characters (apart from Ruby) who we do not really see or feel experiencing significant challenges or moments of change, despite the gravity of what they tell us. The documentary team are just doing their job, and far from intrusively enough to merit an unconvincing attempt to make that consented-to activity somehow villainous.
Apart from characters occasionally running up and down the stairs, the Circle in the Square space is used tentatively; its central stage area has a weird, tiered lava flow-looking structure acting as a kinetic, raised promontory. The songs are all sung as part of concert prep, unlike, say, characters singing as characters to progress their stories. This means characters like Ruby, who should have a song or songs to sing, do not.
The show doesn’t dig into or resolve its narrative tensions—either cultural or personal—but then it doesn’t really ratchet them up to a too-critical level either (a funny moment comes when two of the boys reveal where they’re really from). There is a “show must go on,” “we’re all different, let’s be a team and do this” attitude adopted to defuse the tensions and self-questioning in both the boys’ and girls’ bands, and in MwE’s situation. The show ends with the bands resplendent in white for a final give-it-all song. It’s a closing high note for a show that is really only about the music.