11 March 2014

'Kung Fu'

David Henry Hwang has been writing his whole career about the culture clash between East and West.  He’s based plays on his own family (Golden Child, reported on ROT on 9 December 2012) and Chinese traditions and how they fared in the United States (The Dance and the Railroad, 17 March 2013), among other variations on the theme, and he’s always had both an interesting perspective and something important to say.  The figure of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and Hong Kong action-film star who died at the age of 32 in 1973, seems like a near-perfect subject for Hwang.  Lee, who became influential in the way Americans viewed Asians and the way Hollywood treated them on screen, was born in San Francisco while his father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, a famous clown actor of Chinese opera, was on tour in the U.S., but returned to Hong Kong as a baby.  He was sent to San Francisco to live with his sister at 18 for his safety when he fell afoul of a Chinese organized crime lord.  Lee’s very biography looks like a perfect vehicle for Hwang’s focus, carried even further when the martial artist moved to Seattle in 1959 and met Linda Emery, one of his martial arts students whom he married in 1964.  Lee had become an expert in Kung Fu, the Chinese martial art he began studying in Hong Kong and brought to the U.S. as a teacher, popularizing the form in the West and even inventing a version of his own he called Jun Fan Gung Fu (literally Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu) and later Jeet Kune Do.  So what could be a better canvas: Kung Fu, Chinese opera, bi-cultural biography, a blended family, Hollywood TV and film.  Just to season the mix, Lee had begun a film career as a child in Hong Kong (he appeared as an infant in 1941 and then continued through the ’40s and ’50s), won Hong Kong’s Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship in 1958, had issues with his traditional father who wanted Lee to remain in the old world, became a habitual street fighter before leaving Hong Kong, and was martial-arts master to celebrities like actors Steve McQueen (not the current director), Lee Marvin, and James Coburn; basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor before 1971); writers Stirling Silliphant and Roman Polanski; and martial artists Chuck Norris and his own son, Brandon.  It sure looks like you can’t beat it with a stick!

So when my theater companion Diana and I went to Theatre Row for the Signature Theatre Company’s world première of Hwang’s Kung Fu on Friday evening, 28 February, I was anticipating another interesting theater experience at the hands of the playwright whose Golden Child and Dance and the Railroad last season I enjoyed tremendously.  I had come to admire Hwang’s work and respect his treatment of important ideas and themes.  To state it briefly, however, Kung Fu was a major disappointment.  I got the impression that Hwang may have had some idea to use Lee’s story to reexamine his habitual topic.  In an early announcement of the coming production (when it was scheduled as part of the 2012-13 season at STC), the theater described Kung Fu as “inspired by the life of Bruce Lee”; now it’s promoted in the theater’s publicity as a “portrait” of the martial arts icon.  (Two years ago, the New York Times’s “ArtsBeat” blog reported that at that time, Hwang wasn’t even sure “if the main character in ‘Kung Fu’ will be named Bruce Lee.”)

Signature’s Kung Fu, directed by Leigh Silverman (Hwang’s Chinglish on Broadway, 2011-12, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, 2011, and West Coast/Hong Kong tour, 2012-13; Golden Child at STC, 2012; Yellow Face at the Center Theatre Group, L.A., 2007, and The Public Theatre, New York, 2007-08) in the Irene Diamond Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, began previews on 4 February and opened on 24 February.  It was originally scheduled to close on 16 March but has now been extended twice through 6 April.  Hwang had begun considering a play about Lee in the mid-1990s and after contacting Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow, the playwright spent much of the 2000s writing a Bruce Lee musical.  (Announced in 2008, Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, never got further than a reading the following year staged by Bartlett Sher and starring B. D. Wong.)  That didn’t work out well, Hwang said, because “every time we tried to make Bruce Lee sing, it felt kind of ‘South Park-y,’ but not in a good way.”  So when Hwang and STC began considering his 2012-13 residency (now extended to the current All-Premiere Season), the writer returned to the idea and reconceived the play as a “dance-ical” with martial arts, musical numbers but without singing. 

He saw the new play as a way to write about the “new” image of China which had developed within Hwang’s lifetime.  When he was a child, China was seen as poor, uneducated, and starving; Chinese people themselves thought of China as weak while the West was strong.  Now, Hwang asserts, “China is the next superpower,” and Lee came along “just at the moment when things start to shift.”  Hwang intended to write a play in which Lee would be the embodiment of the reassessment of the Western view of “Oriental” masculinity and Asians’ own sense of confidence and assertiveness.  (The title, Kung Fu, of course refers to the martial art with which Lee was most associated and which he made famous in the West.  But it also alludes, perhaps ironically, to the 1972–1975 TV series for which he was the inspiration.  According to Hwang’s script—the TV network has a different origin story—Lee pitched a western series called The Warrior in which he would star and Warner Bros. expressed interest, but finally wouldn’t make it with Lee attached and the show became ABC’s Kung Fu starring David Carradine.)

Disappointingly, little of that showed up on stage at STC.  The première was postponed, probably because Hwang felt it wasn’t “ready” (no explanation had been announced), and it seems to me as if the point Hwang was going to make got lost somehow.  The script became just a weak bioplay that said little about Lee’s “struggles to prove himself as a fighter, a husband, a father, and a man” (as the show’s promos have it) and nothing about the conflict of the two cultures aside from the generic prejudice and stereotyping all minority celebrities have suffered.  The recent, more successful Signature première, August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned (reported on ROT on 30 December 2013), explored this same area from the perspective of a young black artist with much more passion.  In Golden Child, Hwang used his family’s history to look at the conflict between old-world Chinese traditions and the demands of the modern world at the turn on the last century; in The Dance and the Railroad, he depicted the conflict between traditional values and assimilation into Western culture through the medium of the 1867 Chinese Railroad Workers’ Strike.  Both were better dramas and more enlightening and meaningful inquiries. 

I won’t do a précis of Kung Fu’s plot—it’s easy to look up Lee’s bio, which the play follows generally—so I’ll just note that Hwang covers the period between 1959, when Lee leaves Hong Kong for the U.S., and 1971, two years before his death.  The narrative, which includes several flash-backs to the 1940s when Lee was a small child in early conflicts with his father, hops from Hong Kong to Seattle to L.A. to India (for an abortive film shoot with James Coburn) and back to L.A. in an episodic pastiche of moments from the martial artist’s short life.  There’s little continuity and I found it impossible to keep track of how much time was passing between incidents (even allowing for the brevity of Lee’s life in the U.S., which was only 14 years).  The jump-cut nature of the script made it even harder to see anything more than key-hole glimpses of Lee’s life, much less a larger significance.  It’s a collection of snapshots, as opposed to, say, a well-conceived documentary.  This, I think, is the difference between using Lee’s bio and struggles as an “inspiration” for a creative adaptation and using them to pen a “portrait” of a fraught life in a two-hour span.  Not being a playwright (though I have been a dramaturg), I have no standing to suggest what a real one might have accomplished, but I can’t help feeling that an artful, perhaps fictionalized, retelling might have freed Hwang from the impulse to depict all the incidents in Lee’s brief time in this country—his emergence in an alien culture, working at a menial and subservient job in a Seattle restaurant, teaching martial arts, his marriage and the births of his children (particularly his son, Brandon), moving to L.A., his one season on American TV (as Kato, the hero’s chauffeur and sidekick on 1966’s Green Hornet), the disappointments from Hollywood producers, his injury, the death of his father, and so on—and leave himself space to consider some actual issues.  Indeed, Hwang acknowledged that “it felt to me interesting to end it at a point where we don't know whether he's going to be successful,” before Lee's death; however, “because his name happens to be Bruce Lee, we know how it ends.”  A less verbatim history might have been the key.

(I have to admit, by the way, that I was shocked when I saw that the dramaturg for STC’s Kung Fu was Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater.  There was also a Production Dramaturg, Sarah Rose Leonard, whose on the STC staff, but Eustis is a very experienced dramaturg, one of the founding members of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, the professional association for that theater specialty.  It would be interesting to learn how much work he did with Hwang and if he was a presence in the rehearsals at all.  One of a dramaturg’s jobs is to remind the writer what his original intentions for the play were by asking the right questions like a literary Jiminy Cricket so he doesn’t go off down some rabbit hole because he’s gotten too lost in the minutiae of revising and refining the script.)

Just to increase my letdown, Silverman’s Kung Fu was one of the few times I can remember (maybe even the first), that I wasn’t impressed with the acting at STC.  Cole Horibe, the actor playing Bruce Lee and the core of the production, was clearly cast for his martial arts skills and dancing (a Martial Arts Fusion dancer, he was second runner-up on the 2012 season of the reality-TV show So You Think You Can Dance and is a Junior Olympic silver medalist in Taekwondo), not his acting.  Even if Lee wasn’t much of an actor—and I don’t really know since I wasn’t a fan of his films—someone playing him on stage should be.  Horibe, who doesn’t resemble Lee facially but whose sculpted, sinewy body looks very much like all the publicity photos of the martial arts icon, has to carry the show, not only because he’s the main figure and the character to whom the play happens but also because all the other characters are little more than stick figures.  Despite exclamations from Broadway producers at an early reading of the play that “[t]he kid is a star” and “he was amazing” as well as Hwang’s declaration that “he shared Bruce’s charisma,” the 28-year-old doesn’t have the acting chops for that assignment yet.  (Horibe’s program bio states that Kung Fu is his “New York theatre debut,” but his credits demonstrate that it’s really his legit stage and dramatic acting début as well.  He graduated from the University of Hawaii, which has a theater program in Honolulu focusing on Asian theater forms, but Horibe got his BA in Interdisciplinary Studies.)  Horibe’s dancing and martial arts, both of which he’s studied since he was a child, seem more than equal to the job of impersonating the man he calls “one of my biggest role models,” but I can’t really judge them adequately in theatrical terms because I was underwhelmed by the choreography for both the dancing and the fighting.  (I’ll have more to say about that shortly.) 

All the parts in Kung Fu are underwritten, though Lee is the most fleshed out, but Horibe doesn’t really bring anything to the role, certainly not authority and verve, which it needed.  As Charles Isherwood observed in the New York Times, in Horibe’s performance “that snakelike, laser-beam glower Lee used to intimidate opponents is utterly absent.”  A more confident and experienced actor might carry it off, making up some for Hwang’s wan characterization (which, of course, would just be papering over the deficiency, not fixing it), but Horibe isn’t capable yet of taking command of the character and essentially wresting it away from the playwright and the director (who seems to have done little more here than make sure Horibe hit his marks and said his lines correctly—not that she could have taught an advanced acting class in four weeks).  If the scuttlebutt about a Broadway transfer is true, this kid’ll need to up his game a lot before he’s ready for that challenge.

The only actual stand-out in the cast is young Bradley Fong, whom Steve Parks called “disarming” in Long Island’s Newsday and a couple of bloggers dubbed “a charmer” and “endearing” in his portrayals of Lee Jun Fan (Bruce Lee’s Chinese name) at about 8 years old and Lee’s son, Brandon, at around the same age (Brandon was only 8 when his father died).  Outside the dancing and fight sequences, Fong, a student of Hung Ga Chinese martial art, displays the most energy and personality of anyone on stage, though for the most part it’s all boyish fervor; though his enthusiasm isn’t misplaced by any means, Fong simply outshines everyone else and makes it seem as if he’s in a different production.  (I seem to be having something of a child-actor-heavy season this time around, from 10-year-old Aidan Gemme in the Encores! The Cradle Will Rock, 1 August 2013 on ROT; to 10-year-old Zachary Unger in Newsies, 26 February 2014; to 9-year-old Fong.)  His scenes, however, feel almost obligatory rather than dramatically necessary—but that’s Hwang’s and Silverman’s faults, not Fong’s.  Even Francis Jue, the actor with the most professional credits to his name (on Broadway alone: Pacific Overtures, 2004-05; Thoroughly Modern Millie, 2002-04; M Butterfly, 1989-90), who plays Lee Hoi-Chuen, Bruce Lee’s father, can’t carve out a real personality from Hwang’s predictable and nearly stereotypical (except for the Chinese opera bits tacked on for exotic effect) scenes of friction between the father and son—though Jue’s also more animated on stage than anyone except little Fong.

As Linda Emery, the student Lee married in 1964, Phoebe Strole has no real impact.  Again, this is almost entirely the fault of Hwang—his Linda never develops beyond the helpful, good little wife, as much a stereotype as the deferential “Oriental” against which Lee rails—and the actress has precious little on which to latch an actual character, but it doesn’t help the production any to say that.  With Hoi-Chuen, Linda is one of the two characters who offer dramatic resistance to Lee, someone for the character and the actor both to rub up against.  As the role of Lee’s father, the generator of conflict and contrast, is shoe-horned into the plot, Linda’s the one person who’s consistently present to keep Lee grounded and realistic while also serving as his motivation to succeed and conquer the system.  Strole doesn’t measure up, even given the weakness of the written character—a failing for which Silverman must also take some responsibility; like the others, Linda’s a talking prop. 

The rest of the cast, an ensemble of actors, dancers, and martial artists who all play multiple roles, hardly makes an impression.  Some of the casting is more interesting than the performances: William Dozier (producer of TV’s Batman series, 1966–1968), the man who backs Lee’s efforts to break into Hollywood, is played by Asian actor Peter Kim (whose principal role is Lee’s student and close friend, the timid Japanese-American Toshi) and African American Clifton Duncan presents actor James Coburn, who becomes Lee’s student, friend, and sometime collaborator—as if Silverman and Hwang wanted to underline the relative openness of today’s theater and film worlds to racial blindness in contrast to the Hollywood of the ’50s and ’60s that Lee was trying to penetrate.  But neither actor has much to work with and never overcomes the limitation of the cameo plot devices the roles are.  The same holds true for all the other characters played by members of the Kung Fu ensemble.  (I look down the names of the characters in the cast list and, less than a week later, I can’t even remember who many of them are.)

All this is on the shoulders (or at the feet) of director Leigh Silverman.  The knock on her, from my experience, is that she does fine with the material on the page but doesn’t go beyond what’s handed to her.  I’m sure there are many playwrights who’d applaud that kind of director, but in cases like Kung Fu (and, really, many finer scripts), the actors and director are obliged to bring something of their own—their art, their talent—to the process.  (I’m sorry, all you writers out there, but theater isn’t a playwright’s art.  It’s a cooperative art form—the churkendoose of the art world.  If you want a medium in which you can work unimpeded, write novels and tell your editor to sit down and shut up.)  We all know that a good director can enhance a poor script (and yes, I know, one can ruin a good one, too) and get performances from actors they don’t even know they’re capable of.  In this particular case, however, with the weak text and one-dimensional characters Hwang turned in, Silverman was required to step up and enliven the drama and theatricality of Kung Fu to try to make it the evening in the theater the playwright didn’t provide.  Sadly, she missed the bus.  Everyone went through the correct steps, demonstrated the right context (which is not to say subtext, of which there was none), but the dance never took flight.

In the staging, Anita Yavich’s costumes, Ben Stanton’s lighting, and even Du Yun’s original music were all fine without being outstanding.  I hardly noticed any of them (except to see that Yavich’s clothes were generally period-correct).  The set, essentially a unit that stands in with little adjustment for Lee’s studio, his home, and every other locale the script taps, as designed by David Zinn is a neutral background, even to the institutional green of the walls.  The most prominent element is a back wall of shelves and cubbyholes that spans nearly the whole stage width, stocked with small props like books, tchotchkes, a stereo, and other accouterments of a living room, say, but none of them are actually used for anything.  (There’s no furniture, by the way, because Lee couldn’t afford to furnish his new home.  This keeps the floor space clear for the big production numbers.)  It’s set decoration, and the shelf wall is there as a practical way to close off a large alcove up center when it’s not in use.  The most used set piece, however, is a tall, rolling mirror in which Lee and some of the other martial artists watch themselves as they exercise.  In a way, it’s a symbol for what’s off about Kung Fu in general: it’s focused on itself.  The martial artists use the mirror to see that they’re getting the moves right; Hwang and Silverman eyed the play, it seems, to be sure they get all the details included.  The fight students aren’t obligated to step back and look at the whole forest, but the playwright and director ought to have been.

Before Charles Isherwood published his New York Times review of Kung Fu on 25 February, the paper ran a feature on the dance-fighting sequences in the production.  Hwang coined the term “dance-ical” to characterize his new play and Isherwood even opened his notice by stating, “The fight sequences in ‘Kung Fu’ . . . bristle with kinetic drive and an innovative combination of dance and martial arts.”  The show’s staff includes not only choreographer Sonya Tayeh but also fight director Emmanuel Brown; there’s even an Associate Choreographer, Al Blackstone, and a Chinese Opera Movement Specialist, Jamie Guan.  All of this indicates that the choreography of the fights and dances is the important, or at least most salient, aspect of this staging.  In his breakdown of the movement plot of Kung Fu, Steven McElroy even quoted director Silverman: “The concept for the show started with the way Bruce thought about movement . . . .” 

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, I wasn’t excited by the movement work here.  I recently saw Newsies (reported on ROT on 26 February), and the dancing in that pure entertainment show is far more thrilling.  Silverman wanted "to have the movement . . . connect us emotionally to the material," but I never felt that happened in performance.  I’d also love to hear what my friend, dancer and choreographer Oona Haaranen, would say, but what I saw was a production that isn’t sure where it stands with respect to style.  The dance-fights aren’t realistically enough staged to be threatening—everyone pulls his punches too obviously for that, moving with too much deliberation, more dance-like than dangerous.  On the other hand, Tayeh and Brown don’t use the skills of Guan to make the fights seem more like sequences in Chinese opera, with their artful stylization and implied violence.  The fights in STC’s Kung Fu are neither fish nor fowl, but some mushy place in between.  Personally, I’d have preferred the Chinese opera side of the spectrum—it’s more theatrical, but a truly realistic fight style, like Lee’s film battles, might have helped make Hwang’s overall point more strongly.  The only exception to this miscalculation are the encounters Lee has with his father, which are both in his imagination anyway and intentionally drawn from the Chinese opera world where his father was a star.  Those are, in fact, quite beautiful, but they’re also rare.  Silverman, Tayeh, and Brown need to have made a clear decision to go one way or the other, not stay in the mushy middle.

The press overall was mixed.  Not in the sense that the consensus was diverse—it really wasn’t—but that the notices almost all split between praising the fight-dancing and panning the rest of the play (essentially along the same lines as I have, but a little more generously).  Nearly all the reviewers agreed, which is relatively rare in New York City with all the outlets we have.

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz characterized Kung Fu as “David Henry Hwang’s by-the-book recollection of” Bruce Lee, but reserved his praise for the “[c]ross hooks, jabs and roundhouse kicks [that] come fast and furiously — and thrillingly” because “[t]he show’s real not-so-secret weapon is Sonya Tayeh’s fleet choreography.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli called the “fightsical” (a moniker of which I’m not fond) “a hot mess” in the New York Post, reporting that “the show flails every which way without connecting,” as the “moments plod along” because of Silverman’s “static direction.”  The playwright’s portrayal of Lee “is as heavy-handed as the action numbers are light-footed,” Vincentelli wrote, noting that Horibe, “struggling” with some of Hwang’s lines, is “more in his element fight-dancing” and “isn’t good enough to stand up to the experienced Jue.”  (She also questioned the cross-racial casting I noted earlier, asking, “What’s the point?” not seeing, I guess, that the very fact that she noticed it enough to ask about it is the point.  As if in response to Vincentelli, Jesse Green in New York noted, “It’s . . . no accident, that most of the white characters in Kung Fu are played by Asian or black actors.”)  Newsday’s Parks, writing one of the few almost wholly positive notices, said the “defiant” Kung Fuis all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”   (Parks quips, “We half expect an Aretha Franklin serenade,” but I can’t say I did, though there is period pop music in the show’s score.)  In the end, though, Parks concluded, “Unless you're invested in Bruce Lee mythology, it's unlikely ‘Kung Fu’ will engage you beyond the nifty martial-arts.” 

The Times’s Isherwood followed his praise of the martial arts sequences by reporting, “In between these lively diversions, unfortunately, lie long stretches of utterly punch-free, this-is-what-happened-next drama” as Hwang’s script “never achieves the fluid grace in its dialogue and dramaturgy that it does in its action sequences.  The Timesman asserted that “the corny jokes lumber by . . . and the dialogue remains stuck in a pedestrian groove” so that the rest of the play “cannot match the excitement of its wordless passages.”  In my estimation, Isherwood gave the most cogent explanation of what went wrong with Kung Fu: the play “must spend so much time checking off the turning points in Bruce’s slow rise from humble martial arts master to kung fu instructor to the stars . . . that there is not much time for characters to acquire emotional depth.” 

Brendan Lemon wrote of Kung Fu in the Financial Times, “If the playwriting lacks nuance and surprise, sometimes delivering its points as unsubtly as one of Lee’s swift kicks, the production features skilled physical movement both fierce and flowing.”  Like other reviewers, Lemon agreed, “The play is most effective in its dialogue-free moments.”  In USA Today, in contrast, Elysa Gardner described Kung Fu as “a work that uses simple language and fluid, vibrant movement to examine our notions of, and misconceptions about, race, cultural identity and manhood.”  Gardner felt that Silverman and Hwang “emphasize the thoughtful and lyrical qualities of ‘gung fu,’” making the production “surprisingly delicate.”  Horibe “dazzles in sequences fusing dance and martial arts” under the “high energy and disciplined elegance” of Tayeh’s choreography, the reviewer asserted, making Lee’s “struggle accessible and compelling.”  While “addressing weighty issues with a light touch, and wry, sometimes goofy humor,” Gardner observed, the play “can flirt with glibness.”  Nonetheless, the production “ends more quietly and poignantly . . . after also leaving us briskly entertained.” 

The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” called Hwang’s play an “uneven stage portrait” of Lee, even though the dramatist “avoids the hackneyed ups and downs of most bio-plays.”  The “well-cast” Horibe “has a body like a Swiss Army knife: fast, sharp, and compact,” but “the narrative gets choppy, and Leigh Silverman’s production includes . . . hammy overacting.”  In New York magazine, Jesse Green distinguished two kinds of failed bioplays: “travelogues of the subject’s life” and ones that “focus a microscope on a moment of crisis that is almost by definition unrepresentative.”  Hwang’s Kung Fu, Green lamented, “manages to fail both ways: It’s busy and false.  Its many crises feel artificially constructed, even if they are biographically accurate, and it never achieves a recognizably human, in-the-moment texture.”  Blaming its problems on the play’s origin, Green felt that “between the action sequences, the script has a bad musical’s skeletal quality,”  with scenes that “are too rushed . . . to provide more than a blurry version of Lee’s Wikipedia entry.”  One of the few reviewers who seems to have agreed with my estimation of the dance-fighting, the man from New York, wrote that the movement sequences were “usually disappointing.”  He decided that “kung fu ‘dancing’ is not especially expressive.  [It] . . . seems incapable . . . of dramatizing anything but aggression.”  Green allowed that some of the play’s failures are “honorable,” but averred that Kung Fu “embraces without apology its borrowed psychology, canned climaxes, fake misunderstandings, and lame bits of humor.”  Alexis Soloski, the Village Voice reviewer, pointed out, “Hwang's script, however lithe and dexterous, also seems wanting. Mostly a bioplay, not quite a drama, and kind of a dance piece, Kung Fu is a collection of spirited scenes in search of structure.”  Furthermore, though Horibe’s “a wonderfully communicative dancer, with deft feet and serpentine hips,” Soloski determined, “he lacks Lee's staggering magnetism.” 

Quipping that Hwang’s play “should have been a musical after all,” Marilyn Stasio of Variety explained, “So long as Horibe and the guys are airborne, they have our rapt attention.  But this sprawling bio-dram lacks a cohesive narrative structure, and there’s no dramatic objective to all the fancy footwork.”  The play’s success depending on Silverman’s staging acumen,  Stasio felt that “the dramatic language is much inferior to the eloquent dance vocabulary” so “the narrative thread keeps slipping away.”  In the end, Stasio reported that “we never really got to know [Bruce Lee].  But at least we caught a glimpse of him taking flight.”  In his Entertainment Weekly notice, Clark Collis called the play “a curiosity—not just a look at a superstar that never shows him actually becoming one but a work whose martial arts-infused dance numbers . . . whet the appetite for songs that never arrive.”  In the end, however, Collis came down on a positive note, allowing that “there is much to enjoy here, including the performances.”  Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman declared, “When Kung Fu spotlights this fusion of disciplines, in thrillingly dynamic sequences choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, it knocks you off your feet” and Cole Horibe makes “a very impressive New York stage debut.”  Feldman demurred in his next breath, observing that “the play makes less of an impact” because the diffuse, episodic narrative “attenuates the narrative, and some of the writing seems thin or repetitious.”  The man from TONY summed up, “As spectacle, Kung Fu is exceptional; as drama, it could use some punching up.”  In the theater trade paper Show Business, reviewer Amy Stringer, calling Silverman’s Kung Fu an “ambitious production,” saw that “it is not the script that moves the story forward—rather it acts as almost pure exposition in between the impeccably choreographed and designed dance sequences.”  Stringer praised the flashback scenes of Lee and his disapproving father, saying that “it is in these moments that the production really comes to life.”  Overall, the Show Biz reviewer found that Yavich’s costumes, Stanton’s lighting, Damon West’s sound, and Tayeh’s dances were the “spectacle” that “makes this production worth watching.”

In the on-line press, Michael Dale on Broadway World declared that Hwang “is certainly capable of a much more in depth study of his subject than what's seen” in STC’s Kung Fu in which Horibe’s Bruce Lee is “rarely called upon to play any kind of deep emotion” and the racial stereotyping in Hollywood “is mentioned, but never dramatized.”  The stage fights “are certainly impressive,” wrote Dale, “but with little dramatic weight to the evening, Kung Fu barely lands a blow.”  On TheaterMania, reviewer David Gordon pointed out, “Cramming over 20 years . . . into two hours leaves little room for depth” and “Lee's life becomes a series of bullet points, hit upon quickly and vanishing even faster in order to get to the next.”  Furthermore, observed Gordon, “An inherent lack of subtext makes it difficult for the actors to fully flesh out their characters.”  He concluded that “Kung Fu moves at a fast clip and is often exhilarating to watch. If only there was a bit more substance.” 

Calling the production a “slight but incredibly slick outing,” Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray, praising the dance-fighting and the fusion of “ancient Asian steps with the liquidy go-go dancing of the mid-20th century,” proclaimed, “Hwang and Silverman have unquestionably smithed unique, pulse-quickening theatre in the larger sense, though the individual elements are considerably less innovative.”   The writer “has relied at times too heavily on clichés and tropes,” Murray asserted, and “[t]he predictability of these elements adds little to the texture of Kung Fu . . . .”   This, however, “also hardly detracts from it” since Murray thought that “this is a play too dynamic to get tripped up by a minor mistake for long.”  Silverman’s direction is “precisely paced and on target” but “has trouble maintaining the energy during the ‘down’ moments.”  Murray designated Horibe as the star of the cast, though his “line readings are at times a bit stilted, but he has charisma and a natural sense of comedy.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer declared Hwang’s “dance-ical” “a visually stunning enterprise” in which “Tayeh's superbly executed muscular choreography . . . upstage[s] the play.”  Hwang has nonetheless “created an informative portrait of a driven man” which Sommer felt is more “than just a nuts and bio-drama.”  The production “lacks the originality and impact of the visual elements,” complained the CurtainUp reviewer, so “it's the dance part of the play that makes it a dynamic and truly exciting theatrical two hours.”  Though he’s “sensational in the dance-movement sequences,” Horibe “still falls short of that depth [displayed by Jue as Lee’s father] in his portrayal of Lee.” 

On 23 October last year, the New York Post’s Michael Riedel reported rumors that if Kung Fu got a good reception, “there’ll be a quick move to Broadway in time for the Tony Awards in June.”  At a special reading a few days before Riedel’s report, his spies described the response from potential investors and martial arts masters in superlatives, but I don’t know if the actual reviews I’ve just surveyed would justify a transfer to the top of the commercial ladder.  I’ve already expressed my reservations about Cole Horibe’s acting prowess with respect to a Broadway gig, and as you’ve read, most pros had problems with Hwang’s script even as they praised the dance-fighting.  (I was less taken with even that aspect of the production.)  My sense is that Riedel’s operatives were a little “previous,” as the Brits say—counting some potential chicks before the hatching. 

I read some audience reviews on line, and most included comments like Hwang “apparently ran out [of paper] while writing KUNG FU, and what we are left with is half a play” and “the fight sequences are impeccable here, but the performance and text are . . . not” (ellipsis is original).  Another writer, however, posted, “The audience I saw the show with freaking loved it, and I think this show will do very well.  At the very least, I’d posit that Hwang’s play and Silverman’s staging need a good deal more work, including some rethinking, before a commercial run is viable, and I’d imagine that a smaller, Off-Broadway house would be a better financial bet that a big, expensive Times Square theater with its weekly $5-800 K nut.  Personally, I wouldn’t bet on the success, even critical but certainly financial, of Kung Fu on a commercial stage; the appeal, as the play now stands, would be too narrow—martial arts enthusiasts (as Riedel admits he is) and Bruce Lee fans—for a sustainable draw.  MHO, of course.


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