NEW YORK—If there’s anything I always enjoy while in this fair city, especially while I’m in rehearsals for a show, is grabbing a ticket to a show, whether on Broadway or elsewhere.
Over the week, I was able to enjoy four shows: a special version of Ahrens and Flaherty’s “My Favorite Year” at 54 Below starring Adam Chanler-Berat; Boublil and Schönberg’s “Miss Saigon,” because a good friend, Marcus Choi (we worked together in “Flower Drum Song” and “Allegiance” on Broadway), would be playing The Engineer that night; “KPOP,” to support Julia Abueva, a young musical-theater actress I’ve known since she was 9 years old; and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” to support Quentin Earl Darrington as Old Deuteronomy (who’ll be playing Agwe in the “Once on This Island” revival) and Aaron J. Albano (a good friend from “Allegiance” who was playing Skimbleshanks that night).
All the shows were uniformly fantastic, which is what one expects when heading to a Broadway show. All the singing, dancing and acting were great, not to mention inspiring. However, for this article, I wanted to focus on the one show that’s the most different from the rest: “KPOP,” running at the A.R.T. Theatres until Oct. 21.
“KPOP” is less a show and more an experience. It’s worth repeating at least two or three times to mine it for all it’s worth. It starts with the audience in a room with white platforms, which are stages for the performers. A media guy named Jerry (James Seol) and the heads of the recording company Moon and Ruby (James Saito and Vanessa Kai) introduce the experience to the audience, placed in the position of “focus group” to help figure out how the incredibly-popular-in-Asia Korean pop groups can cross over to the American market.
This is when it gets interesting: the audience is then broken up in groups based on the wristbands we wear. If it’s blue, you go to one room. If it’s orange, you head to another. I wore a blue one, so I can only speak of what happened on the path I followed.
I headed into an elevator and was ushered into a dance studio, where choreographer Jenn (Ebony Williams) was putting one member of fictional girl group Special K (Tiny D, played by Katie Lee Hill) through her paces, making her go through a specific dance step over and over again, through frustration and exhaustion.
We then head into a media room, where two members (Jessica, played by Julia Abueva, and Callie, portrayed by Sun Hye Park) are trained in how to handle late-night talk show interviews. One of the girls in particular has a heavier Korean accent, so the challenge here was how to make her sound more American.
We also head to the studio of vocal coach Yazmeen (Amanda Morton), who was teaching another girl, Jin Hee (Cathy Ang) how to sound, as well as the clinic of a plastic surgeon (David Shih) where one girl just isn’t having it (XO, played by Deborah Kim), and where another one (Susannah Kim as Mina) is asking for more surgical and dermatological procedures to be performed.
Of course, a KPOP experience wouldn’t be complete without a male supergroup, and the one featured is F8. Four of the five members are pure Korean (Joomin Hwang as Timmy X, Jinwoo Jung as Oracle, Jiho Kang as Lex and John Yi as Bobo), while one is half-Caucasian and half-Korean (Jason Tam as Epic), supposedly a ploy to help the group cross over.
We are then ushered into the room of Lex, who tells us we’re supposed to listen to 50 songs from which we’re to help them choose 12 for an album. This particular group member is a bit more “metrosexual” than the others, fastidious with his skin care.
Back in the F8 room, the group members fight among themselves over their identity and sound. Should they be proud of their existing sound, or change it to grab this new market? Before that question is answered, we’re ushered to another room for a brief intermission.
Finally, in the second act, we head into the private chambers of a female solo artist named MwE (Marina Kondo). White fur seats and carpets, and a conspicuous egg-shaped hanging seat, MwE answers preprinted questions from the audience, while Ruby, one of the heads of the fictional recording company, verbally spars with MwE, and reveals that another female artist named Sonoma (who was previously Jessica from Special K) is about to be launched, which doesn’t sit well with the diva.
At the end of the night, all the artists and personnel behind them come together for a brief concert, where at the end it is declared that K-Pop should not have to cross over to America, but that America should cross over to K-Pop. This is the one line that made me cheer, along with everyone else in the room.
This is an experience that deals with the pop-music business, as well as identity and sticking to one’s guns. The creative team (Jason Kim who co-conceived the experience and wrote the book, Helen Park and Max Vernon who composed the songs) has given us not only catchy music in both Korean and English, but insight into the creation, training and challenges of these pop groups.
Infighting, pressure to stay young and beautiful, striving for nothing less than perfection, and knowing one’s identity and staying true to it are themes that are touched upon. We don’t have the time to touch on any of these topics in-depth, but we do have the insight with which to start a conversation of our own.
Above all else, “KPOP” is a lot of fun.
Congratulations to Ars Nova in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective for bringing the show to us, to all the ridiculously attractive and talented artists onstage, and to the team behind the scenes. I hope to grab another chance to take another path, and see another side of its story.
Farewell, Professor Higgins
We send to the family of renowned theater actor Chinggoy Alonso (who played Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” in 1994) our sincerest condolences. His life and career will be remembered.
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