It’s West Side Story meets The Karate Kid in the East West Players crowd-pleasing original musical, Krunk Fu Battle Battle. The Asian American theater company closes out its 45th season with this playfully derivative piece, its deft blend of rap, hip-hop and poetry slam neatly refreshing the genre.
KFBB features a book by Qui Nguyen, lyrics by Beau Sia and songs by Marc Macalintal, yet there’s also a separate — and vital — dance component, with its own music supplied by Rynan Paguio and Jason Tyler Chong, who also serves as choreographer. Director Tim Dang pulls together these elements into a cohesive whole, and the ensemble cast delivers energy-plus performances.”
The setting is Brooklyn. Single mom Jean Lee (Joan Almedilla) has moved back to her roots, along with teenage son Norman (Lawrence Kao). Jean has a past, the nature of which remains veiled. We’re told that she’s a grad of Sarah Lawrence College, but now back in the ’hood, all she can get is menial work. Meanwhile, restless but essentially good Norman unwittingly realizes his mother’s worst fears — becoming embroiled in a street-gang turf battle with the b-boys (as in those break-dancers, the baddies).
The story is more or less narrated by a Mr. Miyagi figure (Blas Lorenzo), who enters early on and occasionally interrupts the action with background on the legendary nature of Brooklyn b-boying, then later becomes the Teacher.
The asphalt-jungle aspect of the show is almost fantasylike – with the rival gang, led by Alpha male Three-Point (Leng Phe), portrayed as tough but not murderous. We root for Norman and his new pals, Wingnut (Matt Tayao) and Junior (Evan Moua), to win the street battle, where the weapons of choice are killer dance moves.
No epic tale is complete without the alluring young female, and here it’s Cindy Chang (Liza B. Domingo), a hot Filipina b-girl caught in the tug of war between pure-hearted Norman and the coarse Three-Point. For Cindy, the options are clear: Will she choose purity over power? (Whoever wins Cindy’s heart gets to take her to – can you believe it? — the Homecoming Dance!)
The big dance-off is the show’s culminating moment, where past lives are also revealed, and a cheesy but mirthful bit of audience participation determines the outcome.
The efficient script comes peppered with a clever mix of intentional ethnic clichés (“ancient Chinese secret,” for example) and references to TV and video games. The songs are generally pleasing, including the anthemic, R&B-inspired “We Will Get There,” the moving duet “It’s Gotta Begin Somewhere,” and also a rap-inspired title tune whose style and purpose triumph over monotonous melody. Among the songs sampled are the iconic “Eye of the Tiger” and “Bang Bang,” a Cher pop hit from 1966. Helming the turntable, presenting all the prerecorded tracks, is DJ Gingee.
As for the b-boying, it’s essential to what this show is all about. While choreographer Chong puts his charges through their moves with precision, very little of it blows you away. It’s serviceable, for sure, and certainly a decent night’s workout for the players, but for astonishment in this genre, we’d have to look to the urban playgrounds of, well … Brooklyn.
On the technical end, Adam Flemming’s set is a functional single piece that hints at edgy city life, accessorized with a smattering of strobe effects, rear-screen projections and other lighting tricks.
Krunk Fu Battle Battle never takes itself too seriously, and that’s a key part of its charm. Its main achievement, though, is melding rap music, hip-hop and break dancing – all springing from inner-city toughness — and comfortably exploiting them in a positive, entertaining musical.
Krunk Fu Battle Battle, East West Players. Through June 26, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts. 213-625-7000.