Kung Fu Review: Bruce Lee’s Story Retold as a Fusical

Fans of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and actor who died four decades ago at age 32, are likely to be delighted at the sheer physical excitement of  “Kung Fu,” which has opened at the Pershing Square Signature Theater starring Cole Horibe, a contestant in 2012 in the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”  There are three people who oversaw the various and thrilling movement in the play — Sonya Tayeh is credited with the choreography; Emmanuel Brown with the fight direction; Jamie Guan is listed as “Chinese Opera movement specialist.”

Those looking for live theater at a bargain will be similarly pleased: the initial run of “Kung Fu,” as all Signature shows, is just $25.

Those of us, however, who are long-time admirers of the playwright, David Henry Hwang, are more likely to be disappointed. The author of “M. Butterfly” and “Yellow Face” and “Chinglish,” seems to have written a workman-like libretto for a musical,  the kind of dialogue that serves simply as a bridge between musical numbers. But instead of song-and-dance numbers, the show has prolonged moments of physical activity set to recorded music.  “Kung Fu” does not feel like a play; it’s too wordy to be considered a dance concert; it’s not a musical. Perhaps this is a new theatrical genre — the fusical?  If so, it will take some getting used to.

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Hwang has much experience writing the book for actual Broadway musicals — Aida, Tarzan, Flower Drum Song — and, indeed, if you search back a half dozen years, you’ll see news that there was a musical in the works about Bruce Lee, with a book by Hwang and music by David Yazbek (Fully Monty, Women on the Verge), directed by Bartlett Sher (South Pacific).  That didn’t happen, and that’s too bad.  There’s nothing wrong with the original music by Du Yun in “Kung Fu,” and the play’s director Leigh Silverman (who also directed Hwang’s Chinglish and Yellow Face) is certainly no slouch. But the familiar story of Bruce Lee’s life has been told before, and better — for example,  in the 1993 movie Dragon.

Born Lee Jun Fan in the U.S.,  the son of a Chinese opera star, Lee was raised in Hong Kong. At the age of 13, after a series of street fights with members of local gangs, Lee started training in the martial arts. He migrated to the United States when he was 18, and began teaching martial arts. His first big acting break was in the role of Kato in the TV show “The Green Hornet” when he was 25. He then became a breakout star in Hong Kong martial arts action pictures that were big hits in the United States.

Hwang’s “Kung Fu” focuses on the courtship of his wife Linda (Phoebe Strole); his tense relationship with his father (Francis Jue), a demanding man; his frustrated efforts to launch his career, stifled by 1960’s attitudes towards Chinese men, and then the beginnings of his stardom. Much of this feels obligatory. There is no mention of his death.

There seem to be two emotional climaxes of the show  – the resolution of his relationship with his father, and his taking off his shirt: Despite the plethora of production photos of the Cole Horibe bare-chested, there is a long wait for this classic Bruce Lee pose.

“Kung Fu” is scheduled to run through March 30, Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St.

Update: Kung Fu has been extended to April 6, 2014. During the extension, ticket prices jump to $75

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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