If young people can’t be induced back to live theater, it won’t be for East/West Players’ lack of trying. Their world premiere tuner “Krunk Fu Battle Battle” – title generously provided by the Department of Redundancy Department – is a canny mix of simple, earnest dramaturgy and sizzling hip-hop routines powered by catchy tunes and fly rhymes. Unless helmer Tim Dang misses his guess, the 90-minute extravaganza accomplishes youth theater’s perennial mission of offering a stimulating take on the contemporary world as kids see it. One hopes they’ll find it undemanding, infectious fun. Certainly their ‘rents will.
According to “The Urban Dictionary,” krunk fu is the practice of kicking someone’s ass while intoxicated, but this tuner’s Sunset Park High is an alcohol and drug-free zone. Nor are any f-bombs dropped here, despite the grit of Beau Sia’s rap lyrics. This isn’t to call the show phony (in its brash showbizzy way it seems pretty authentic), but to frankly identify it as a PG version of Brooklyn’s mean streets.
Indeed, librettist Qui Nguyen’s entire plot is cribbed from the PG “Karate Kid,” in which a newcomer from the suburbs runs afoul of Establishment thugs in the ‘hood and must train for a big showdown mentored by a seemingly washed-up but gifted and inspiring alte kocker. The tuner’s Mr. Miyagi, janitor Lloyd (the delightful Blas Lorenzo), goes by the handle Sir Master Cert and in his forties can still bust a few good moves. But his messaging is the same: Believe in yourself. Don’t go by appearances. Wax on, wax off and so on.
The sampling in Rynan Paguio and Jason Tyler Chong’s dance music – amusingly citing the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” – is nothing compared to the sampling engaged in by Nguyen and composer Marc Macalintal. Start with the major “West Side Story” vibe as the gang protects its playground blacktop with the Jets’ wiseguy tenacity, and heroine Cindy (Liza B. Domingo) is torn between Capulet hothead Three-Point (Leng Phe) and her Romeo, unassuming fish-out-of-water Norman (Lawrence Kao).
The latter’s crew (isn’t there always a crew?) is right out of “Grease” and sitcom TV in the person of Urkelish brainiac Junior (Evan Moua) and goofy Wingnut (Matt Tayao), athletic Jughead to Norman’s Archie.
Even the non-rapping songs hit you with a nagging where’s-that-from feeling: Norman and Cindy’s meet-cute “It’s Gotta Begin Somewhere” is a dead ringer for “Light My Candle” from “Rent,” and two ballads for Norman’s mom Jean (Joan Almedilla) come right out of the disco era – a smart touch, actually, since she proves to have a hip-hop past of her own dating back to when “Footloose” was in multiplexes.
In this instance, all that familiarity breeds not contempt but affection. There’s a kind of exhilaration in the way a fresh young company can take old beer and rebrew it so tastily. “Krunk Fu Battle Battle” proudly wears its influences on its sleeve with a wink and a smile, just as “Rock of Ages” does.
And just as the 70s era sound of “Ages” blinds you to the plot’s staleness, Chong’s breakdances regularly and blessedly intrude on – while pushing forward – Norman’s predictable story. The numbers build the way show choreography ought to build, the power moves as exciting as the toprock shuffling is witty and character-driven.
Though Kao could use a little more character to go with his one-note sullenness, and Domingo is pitchy besides being plucky, the entire ensemble works so hard, none of them will gain a pound during this run. Interestingly, the majestic Almedilla and Lorenzo are best-in-show by far, indicating that youth has no premium on talent, and that the gap between showtunes and rap is bridgeable by more than one generation.
Dan Weingarten lights from above, smartly investing every scene with dance club ambiance, and Adam Flemming’s modest projections contribute against attractive, anime-influenced panels. The entire physical production exudes the same feel-good glow as the we’re-all-in-this-together finale.