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A CurtainUp Review

A genre of contemporary commercial music, originating from South Korea, comprised of various styles, tropes, and audiovisual elements . . . frequently used as a cultural weapon.
— Jerry Kim, a brand marketing executive in the immersive musical KPOP, quoting a subordinate's controversial definition of K-Pop
The Cast
Jae Tak and Ruby Moon, spouses and business partners, are bringing their stable of Korean pop-music artists to the United States. Their New York City brand-marketing executive predicts that the Moons are adding a much-needed "K to "Amerika.

The Moons — proprietors of a South Korean recording label — are among the principal characters in the rowdy new musical KPOP, presented by Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Woodshed Collective. With book by Jason Kim and music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon, this show takes its title from a South Korean form of entertainment that's finding audiences around the globe. K-pop (as it's usually styled) draws on many types of contemporary music and frequently involves audiovisual extravagance.

Scenic designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has transformed two floors of the handsome new A.R.T./New York Theaters (far west on West 53rd Street) into the Moons' States-side, state-of-the-art "music factory." From this facility, with its ample performance space, dance studios, practice rooms, and sundry nooks and hideouts, the Moons are launching their assault on North American culture. We, the lucky KPOP audience, get to be the initial focus group for the Moons' company, JTM Entertainment.

Though raised rich, President Moon (James Saito) has amassed his own fortune through the record label in South Korea. Mrs. Moon (Vanessa Kai) — or, rather, Ruby — is a former pop starlet who has aged out of public favor and now recruits and wrangles young performers. Together they're a vampire power-couple who measure human worth and value in strictly monetary terms.

The Moons have four principal assets: superstar vocalist MwE, a sort of Korean Beyonce (Ashley Park); a girl group called Special K (Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Kathy Lee Hill, Deborah Kim, Susannah Kim, and Sum Hye Park); and F8 (pronounced "fate), a boy band with an American lead singer (Jason Tam, supported by Joomin Hwang, Jinwoo Jung, Jiho Kang, and John Yi).

In KPOP, the audience plays the role of a carefully chosen focus group of American influencers, touring the "factory", hearing the artists, and offering feedback on the musical products the Moons are about to release. We get an introduction from brand manager Jerry (James Seol); then, divided into relatively small groups, we're led through the Moons' musical-industrial complex by reckless guides who sometimes let us see under the factory's glossy surfaces.

In the course of our two and a half hour visit, we observe the balance of talent and hard work involved in development of k-pop stars and k-pop hits. We see the artists rehearsing, taking dance class, and undergoing media training.

We also glimpse things the Moons and their brand manager might prefer keeping under wraps. While waiting to meet the house physician, Dr. Park (David Shih), for instance, we overhear a couple of very young women being pressed, by promises of improved appearance and enhanced sex appeal, to submit to plastic surgery. (We're also subjected to a sales pitch for Dr. Park's beauty and grooming products.)

At other points, we witness women artists being harangued by Moon and their dance coach (Ebony Williams). And we find ourselves in the company of F8 as the long-term members turn on the American-born lead singer whom the Moons have recently added to the band.

The dynamics of the Moons' music factory bring to mind the sordid stories we've heard about the old Hollywood studio system, where young actors were controlled completely by moguls and drugs were used to modify mood, energy level, and weight. The banal script of KPOP, an Asian-American hybrid of Valley of the Dolls and A Chorus Line), doesn't go in any direction that hasn't been pursued more interestingly before. But the scenes are competently crafted and, under Teddy Bergman's superb direction, they're performed with such conviction and velocity that the derivative nature of the enterprise is unobjectionable. And the tunes, most of them jumpy and melodically appealing, lend freshness and dazzle to the enterprise.

KPOP is a well-constructed immersive production that dramatizes (or, better, melodramatizes) the potential tyranny of corporate culture and the perils that sleazier areas of the entertainment industry may hold for young artists. It's also a romp that explores the pleasures of South Korean culture and the delights of pop music. As a total package, it's pretty hard to resist.

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KPOP world premere byArs Nova,in association with Ma-Yi Theater + Woodshed Collective
Conceived by Woodshed Collective + Jason Kim
Book by Jason Kim
Music + Lyrics by Helen Park + Max Vernon
Immersive Design by Woodshed Collective
Choreographed by Jennifer Weber Directed by Teddy Bergman
Cast: Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Katie Lee Hill, Joomin Hwang, Jinwoo Jung, Vanessa Kai, Jiho Kang, Deborah Kim, Susannah Kim, Amanda Morton, Ashley Park, Sun Hye Park, James Saito, James Seol, David Shih, Jason Tam, John Yi and Ebony Williams
Production Design: Gabriel Hainer Evansohn
Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian
Lighting Design: Jeanette Oi-suk Yew
Sound Design: Will Pickens
Projection And Video Design: Phillip Gulley
Stage Manager: Lizzy Lee
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours
A.R.T./New York Theaters 502 W 53rd St
From 9/19/17; opened 9/22/17; closing 10/21/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright on September 26th

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