The dance movie comes to the stage with the East West Players world-premiere hip-hop musical, Krunk Fu Battle Battle. Set in Brooklyn, the oft-told tale switches things up by setting the story amidst an all Asian cast and making it a full-fledged musical rather than just a story with dance numbers.
The show opens with Jean Lee (knockout singer Joan Almedilla) and her son Norman (Lawrence Kao) as they move back to a small apartment in Brooklyn—a far cry from their previous Connecticut address. There, Jean runs into an old high-school friend, Sir Master Cert (Blas Lorenzo), the complex's repair man who harbors not just a crush on Jean, but a bigger secret he hasn’t let on.
Needless to say, the buttoned-up Norman doesn’t like his new digs and his polo shirt makes him stand out in an area that favors graffiti-inspired T-shirts, beanies and high-tops. As he explores his new surroundings he runs into Wingnut (standout Matt Tayao) a hyper kid with an abundance of energy and an even bigger heart. He takes Norman under his wing, gives him a makeover, and becomes his right-hand man at school. Which is where Norman runs into a few problems.
Crossing the blacktop to get to class, he quickly discovers this simple act is a no-no according to a dance crew headed by Three-Point (Leng Phe). You see, they “own” that area of asphalt and by Norman crossing it, he has initiated a dance battle. If he wins, he becomes the king of the school and can walk wherever he wants to. If he loses, he is ostracized from not just the school, but from Brooklyn itself.
While I’m sure Norman’s mother would have something to say about this and the stakes are not entirely believable, this is the catalyst that starts the action of the play. Norman has to learn how to dance, set up his own dance crew, woo the girl of his dreams—Cindy Chang (Liza B. Domingo)—and has to hide all of this from his mother.
Interspersed in training montages and battle sequences are some nice songs with lyrics by Beau Sia and music by Marc Macalintal. While the numbers aren’t completely memorable, they are fairly catchy and sung really well by the entire cast. Although, Almedilla gets most of the applause with her beautiful voice and power solos, the best being “We Will Get There” which illustrates how she and her son will make something of their new life.
Kao as Norman is alternately nerdy and newly hip creating a charming character that transforms before our eyes. His mortal enemy Three-Point is a bit one-note as the local baddie, and Cindy Chang is appealing but doesn’t have much of an arc. She’s pretty cool throughout most of the play until the end where she makes an out-of-character decision that puts Norman in jeopardy.
Lorenzo’s Sir Master Cert is a hoot, popping and locking his middle-aged body into a memorably fun performance of a man with secrets of his own.
But the stand out here is Tayao. An L.A.-based dancer who has performed with the likes of Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Puff Daddy, he is the most magnetic of the actors. Not only is his character the most fun, but he nails the humor and genial nature of the character while dancing his ass off in the process. Part goofball, he’s also unassumingly sexy which makes him a blast to watch.
Krunk Fu Battle Battle doesn’t offer much in the way of story, and translating the energy of hip-hop to a theater format isn’t entirely successful. But what it lacks in electricity is made up for with terrific actors and an investment by all to entertain. The East West Players may not always have perfect material to work with, but the actors just happen to be one of the best theatre companies in Los Angeles. So for that, I recommend anything they do.
Krunk Fu Battle Battle runs through June 26 at the East West Players Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles. For tickets, visit eastwestplayers.org or call (213) 625-7000.