In Off-Broadway's entertaining new “Kung Fu,” playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) tracks Bruce Lee’s journey from his reckless youth in Hong Kong to his years in Seattle and Los Angeles, and finally back to Lee's birthplace, where he ultimately became the king of martial arts cinema. The play is having its world premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center.
"Kung Fu" begins in a Seattle dance studio, where the quick-fisted Lee is seen courting new student Linda (Phoebe Strole), a wannabe fighter who will go on to become his wife. “What we study here,” he tells his pupil, is “the art of fighting without fighting.”
While that may have been Lee’s philosophy, it’s thankfully not one shared by director Leigh Silverman and Sonya Tayeh, the choreographer from TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” who punctuate Hwang’s sanitized story with a half-dozen martial arts scenes — some humorous, others downright scary.
Carrying out their vision is Cole Horibe, a 2012 “SYTYCD” contestant, whose specialty was martial arts fusion. (See his fantastic audition here.) Horibe is trained in jazz, hip-hop, ballet, modern and ballroom, which must’ve made him a lock for a play that blends dance, Chinese opera and martial arts.
Hwang’s main themes are the struggles Lee encountered trying to break through in Hollywood, where Asians were portrayed stereotypically, as “villains, enemy soldiers, comic relief,” and his problematic relationship with his father. But the moments where “Kung Fu” comes alive are in the scattered dance and fight scenes, which transpire as a street fight in Hong Kong, or the stylized “Kato Dance,” with its kitschy TV music — Kato, protective sidekick to Van Williams’ “The Green Hornet,” marked the pinnacle of Lee’s modest TV success in America.
A fantastic imagined father-son confrontation that occurs when Lee visits his father’s grave showcases the focused talents of Francis Jue, as Lee’s father, Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-Chuen. Standouts among the ensemble include Peter Kim, first as an awkward pupil in one of Lee’s early martial arts classes, and later, as cocksure “Batman” TV producer William Dozier, who lobbies studio honchos to get Lee cast as Kato.
Curiously, the play ends not with Lee’s untimely and still controversial death at 32, but with his departure from the States for Hong Kong, where he’d go on to make martial arts films in the early 1970s, such as “The Chinese Connection” and “The Way of the Dragon.” I was never quite sure in what light Hwang views Lee's fraught decision to go back home, leaving behind his dreams of greater success in the U.S.
Horibe’s mixture of dance and movement, coupled with Tayeh’s choreography are the reasons to take up “Kung Fu.” You have to hope this leads to more opportunities for Horibe, who deserves to be known to a wider audience. The fact we haven’t seen more of Horibe? Perhaps that’s a problem Bruce Lee would understand.
“Kung Fu,” through March 30 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $25-$75. Call 212-244-7529.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn.