K-pop refers to South Korean popular music notable for its wide range of musical and visual elements. Songs typically can touch on one or a mixture of pop, R&B, hip hop, rock and electronic musical genres incorporated from the West. K-pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable, colorful outfits. This is big business entertainment, with young trainees living in regulated environments spending many hours a day learning music, dance, foreign languages and other skills. Popular? Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was the first music video to reach over one billion views on You Tube. A viewing today shows 2.95 billion views.
KPOP is the latest full production at Ars Nova, the theater company committed to developing and producing works by artists in the early stages of their careers. Perfect example: before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s Freestyle Love Supreme. KPOP is performed at the new A.R.T/New York theater space which can house this larger scale, multi-floor piece. The results are decidedly mixed.
Upon entering a black box space, we meet the owners of JTM, the company that develops talent and wants to make K-pop popular in America. From that point, the audience splits up and travels through an immersive theater experience, exploring the “factory” where training occurs. While some of the segments were brief, all of them seemed a bit of a slog, as was the entire evening. (I’m ignoring the technical delays since this was a preview performance.) The book was written by Jason Kim, who co-conceived this piece with Woodshed Collective, an immersive theater company. The story touches on racism, age, appearance and nationalism as we consider, for one, whether the artists may be selling out to reach the American market. A lot of themes here, both rushed and underdeveloped, in combination with scenes which felt overlong and slow. The tone varied uncomfortably between satire and documentary, with awkward moments of audience participation.
By far the best segment is the one with MwE backstage. She’s the current top star who unfortunately is now 26 years old. The big finale was fun and I loved the song “KPopsicle.” KPOP is not the best immersive theater experience in New York but it is an ambitious attempt.