curtain call

‘KPOP’ brings a worldwide musical phenomenon and some very hairy armpits to Broadway

Kevin Woo KPOP
Kevin Woo and the cast of ‘KPOP’ on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

The Rundown:

K-Pop star Luna, formerly of girl group f(x), plays fictitious K-Pop star MwE, who finds herself at a flashback-filled crossroads on the evening of her label’s big New York showcase and the debut of its two new groups, RTMIS and F8 (pronounced “Artemis” and “fate,” respectively).

Documenting behind-the-scenes drama as the big event approaches, à la Alan Cumming in the Spice Girls’ Spice World movie, a filmmaker, Harry (Aubie Merrylees), sneakily captures feuds between ironfisted RBY Entertainment label owner Ruby (Jully Lee) and longtime signee MwE, whom Ruby cultivated for stardom since childhood, and F8’s half-Korean, Connecticut-bred Brad (Dear Evan Hansen’s first Asian-American lead, Zachary Noah Piser), and his full-blooded Asian bandmates, who resent him for sidestepping the years of grueling training they endured to slip in and replace another member while not knowing the Korean language to boot.

While the plot runs thin (thankfully, there’s no forced interaction with the audience), Circle in the Square’s thrust stage provides an immersive, concert-like atmosphere with visually dazzling lighting (Jiyoun Chang), projection (Peter Nigrini), sliding scenery elements (Gabriel Hainer Evanson), and multimedia effects.

Zachary Noah Piser KPOP
Zachary Noah Piser in ‘KPOP’ on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

No Tea, No Shade:

A love letter to the global phenomenon, which to a small degree addresses its colder machine-like aspects, KPOP represented a harbinger of things to come during its world premiere Off-Broadway in 2017, before bands like BTS, BLACKPINK, and seemingly endless NCT subgroups broke through stateside.

The mainstreaming of K-pop is reflected in this profoundly reconceived, recast 2022 version (both written by Jason Kim and directed by Teddy Bergman), boasting a handful of legit K-pop group talents among the cast: headliner Luna, Miss A’s Min, SPICA’s BoHyung, and Kevin Woo of U-KISS. Stans will want to bring their fandom lightsticks for the energetic song and dance numbers.

Luna in KPOP
Luna in ‘KPOP’ on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Indeed, KPOP’s team has incorporated South Korean and the genre’s culture. Bilingual Playbills bear several different covers, a nod to how K-pop albums are released with varying, collectible artwork (alas, no photocards of the performers yet!), while the concession stand offers soju, makkoli, and K-inspired cocktails.

Rather than go the jukebox musical route, songwriting team Max Vernon and Helen Park whipped up almost 20 original tunes, infused mainly with the tasty electropop-driven arrangements, hooks, and Korean-English lyrics found in the output of Twice, New Jeans, and Monsta X, while some nonetheless smack of uptempo Broadway showtunes (“Superstar”). But, then again, this is Broadway.

Those unfamiliar with K-pop, which is to say half the audience, may feel lost during the Korean language segments: a lack of English subtitles on the video projection screens and surfaces scattered around the stage feels like a lost opportunity (“Learn some Korean,” a couple of F8 members insist later in the show, which could be directed at the audience as much as Brad and Harry). 

Ditto for not addressing K-pop’s trend of gay-baiting and what’s known as “skinship” between male artists, which has gone next level recently with group OnlyOneOf’s “Underground Idol” singles series, each accompanied by jaw-droppingly gay, romantic music videos, or having a queer member of F8 — although when Timmy X (Joshua Lee) refers to his ex without specifying gender, you can read that as a wink-wink since there’s often at least one assumed queer member of each group out there, albeit forced to stay closeted publically due to South Korea’s largely conservative and Christian society. (As a side note, gay fans might appreciate that KPOP’s male cast, unlike K-pop male idols, don’t shave their armpits. Hot!)

There is certainly room to explore more interesting narrative nooks and crannies given how thin the plot is, especially a bizarre late-in-the-show romance between MwE and her boyfriend/co-songwriter Juny (Jinwoo Jung), who encourages her to perform honestly instead of vapid songs but then threatens to leave her if she pursues music instead of abandoning public life and moving to a quiet town.

Let’s Have a Moment:

The final 20 minutes dispense with the plot entirely … ahem, succinctly resolves its arcs … serving us the big showcase, and it doesn’t disappoint. Between out, Tony-winning designer Clint Ramos (Eclipsed, Slave Play) and Sophia Choi’s glitzy, colorful costumes, Jennifer Weber’s tight choreography, and the performers putting 1000% into their numbers — including F8’s contagiously (and shamelessly!) Psy-esque “Hun Du Roh (Shake It)” — the audience completely lost their sh*t, joyfully blurring the line between show and concert.

KPOP Broadway
The cast of ‘KPOP’ on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

The Final Word:

Your knowledge of and attitude towards K-pop is bound to color how you see and enjoy KPOP. NY Times critic Jesse Green noted that “those who aren’t hard-core fans of the genre or don’t understand Korean — let alone those who saw the radically different and far superior Off-Broadway version in 2017 — will have a harder time enjoying this one. For them, the musical is less an eye-opener than an ear-pounder, assiduously drowning out any ambitions it may once have had to be more.” 

However, even if you’ve never heard a single K-pop tune, it’s hard not to get sucked into the ferocious, fun, and dance-driven numbers, especially the extended finale. And it’s worth lingering outside post-show as the cast exits the stage door amid the stans’ excited screams, proving that regardless of KPOP‘s Broadway run, the genre has jumped the ocean and is here to stay.

KPOP plays at Circle in the Square in New York City.