The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through April 6, $75
Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang concludes his Signature Theatre Residency One year with the world premiere of Kung Fu, a flashy but flat portrait of martial arts master Bruce Lee. Hwang (M. Butterfly, Chinglish) focuses on Lee’s (Cole Horibe) life in America, after he was sent there in 1959 by his father, Chinese opera performer Hoi-Chuen (Francis Jue), because of his penchant for street fighting in Hong Kong. Still in high school, Lee starts teaching martial arts — a defensive style he calls “fighting without fighting” — in a room above the restaurant where he works for Ruby Chow (Kristen Faith Oei), but he has dreams of making it big. When classmate Linda Emery (Phoebe Strole) comes to study with him, Lee immediately falls for her, and soon she is pregnant and they get married. Determined to succeed, Lee is hired to play Kato on the short-lived television series The Green Hornet, but he wants to break out of stereotypical, subservient Asian roles, developing a Western built around a wandering kung fu warrior and going to India to make a film with one of his more famous students, James Coburn (Clifton Duncan). But things don’t quite go as planned, leaving him to reconsider his life in Hollywood.
Hwang initially intended Kung Fu to be a musical, and it shows. There are several exhilarating set pieces in which Horibe, a So You Think You Can Dance second runner-up making his New York theater debut, and the cast (most of whom take on multiple characters) incorporate martial arts into exciting dance numbers choreographed by Sonya Tayeh (the fight scenes are directed by Emmanuel Brown, who also plays Marcus), including one eye-popper featuring bold yellow and blue Chinese opera costumes by Anita Yavich. But the dialogue is static and repetitive, filled with genre clichés, offering no real insight into who Lee really was, and there’s little sense of time and place. Hwang was far more successful blending movement and story in The Dance and the Railroad; unfortunately, this new work has more in common with his stale revival of Golden Child, both of which were part of his Signature residency. On film, Lee proved to have fists of fury, but onstage, this Lee lacks sufficient kick.