502 West 53rd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Through October 21, $25-$75
The fictional JTM Entertainment and Crossover Productions have teamed up to bring their roster of popular South Korean singing stars to Manhattan in an effort to capture the American audience, and they need your help. That is the setup for the immensely entertaining immersive show KPOP, continuing at A.R.T. through October 21. An inventive collaboration between Ars Nova (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), Woodshed Collective (Empire Travel Agency), and Ma-Yi Theater (The Romance of Magno Rubio), KPOP ostensibly invites people behind the scenes of a music factory, with the audience becoming small focus groups that are led through numerous rooms as they follow how stars are made. “This is my Korea / This is my story-ya,” JTM’s roster belts out at the beginning, setting the stage for cultural arguments about sacrificing Korean heritage in order to make it big in the States, a discussion built around Crossover head Jerry (James Seol), a master marketer who was born in America and knows little about Korea. JTM is led by the elegant and proper Jae Tak Moon (James Saito) and his wife, Ruby (Vanessa Kai), a former superstar singer who now likes to spout odd Korean sayings, such as “When you’re eating kimchi, don’t lick the sauce first.” Each focus group’s experience is slightly different, but it doesn’t matter which you are part of, as you’ll eventually meet Dr. Park (David Shih), who is ready to take his scalpel to every face to craft it into something even more beautiful; vocal coach Yazmeen (Amanda Morton); strict dance teacher Jenn (Ebony Williams), who makes sure the performers know all the right moves; girl group Special K, consisting of Sonoma (Julia Abueva), Tiny D (Katie Lee Hill), Mina (Susannah Kim), Callie (Sun Hye Park), and XO (Deborah Kim); boy band F8, featuring Timmy X (Joomin Hwang), Oracle (Jinwoo Jung), Lex (Jiho Kang), Bobo (John Yi), and Epic (Jason Tam); and label diva MwE (Marina Kondo).
Unfortunately, not everything is going according to plan. Not happy with Special K’s rehearsal, Jenn shouts, “Do y’all understand why you’re here? This is where the sausage is made. When they [the audience members] leave, they should want the sausages. Right now, no one wants the sausages.” Moon adds, “I love all of you like my own children. Why do you continue to break my heart?” Meanwhile, MwE, who has a rather luxurious private chamber, is worried that Sonoma, aka Jessica, is going to supplant her as the label’s centerpiece; Epic wants to take F8 in a new direction, which angers Bobo; and there’s a mysterious building tension between Timmy X and Callie. But at the heart of it all is the concept of trying to maintain one’s cultural heritage and become international pop icons. “If you are Korean, why don’t you speak Korean?” Callie asks Jerry, who replies, “Who says I have to speak Korean to be Korean?” Callie answers, “Don’t you care where you’re from?” to which Jerry responds, “I’m from San Diego. . . . You could be a real sensation here. If you could just lose the accent.” The book by Korean-born New Yorker Jason Kim is superb, wonderfully weaving through clichés and melodrama as the individual characters burst forth and the story takes shape, while the music, lyrics, and orchestrations, by Helen Park and Max Vernon, have just the right pop flourishes, from “Wind Up Doll” and “Shopaholic” to “So in Love” and “All I Wanna Do,” from “Dizzy” and “Hahahaha” to “Phoenix” and “Amerika (Checkmate).” Music director Sujin Kim-Ramsey nails the various styles, with genre-licious choreography by Jennifer Weber, flashy costumes by Tricia Barsamian, projections by Phillip Gulley, and splashy lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Director Teddy Bergman keeps everything flowing beautifully as the audience marches through the numerous sets, designed by Woodshed Collective cofounder Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, including a doctor’s office, a sound booth, a lounge with multiple platforms, a mirrored dance rehearsal space, and several surprises. In order to enjoy immersive theater, you have to be willing to fully immerse yourself in it, and there’s plenty to get involved in with KPOP, an awesome journey into music making, promotion, assimilation, the desire for fame, and more. Early on, Jerry explains that the mission of his agency “is to launch rockets into American markets.” With a sly sense of humor and charm to spare, KPOP accomplishes that mission, in explosive, provocative ways.