East West Players developing “Krunk Fu Battle Battle,” Asian American hip-hop musical

MAY 2011 UPDATE: After a year and a half of hard work, revisions and improvements, East West Players has opened a finished production of “Krunk Fu Battle Battle” which runs through June 26, 2011. If you’re in LA or gonna be in LA, don’t miss this musical — we wish we could fly from Denver to see it! Here’s a video trailer:

Now, back to the original post:

It’s not often that we get the chance to see the embryonic stage of a theatrical project, and see how a play is developed. So we were fortunate that our visit to LA to attend the BANANA conference of Asian American bloggers coincided with a free “workshop” performance of a new project being developed by East West Players.

“Krunk Fu Battle Battle,” is a hip-hop musical, which features hip-hop music and b-boy dancing, woven around familiar but tried-and-true plots of a boy who falls in love with a girl from the other side, and has a mentor who helps him overcome his obstacles. Think “Romeo and Juliet” meets “West Side Story” meets “Karate Kid.”

East West Players produced a reading of the play, which is in very early stages, by rehearsing a partial script, several songs and dance numbers, and performing a 35-minute excerpt for anyone who showed up, then asked audience members for their opinions and reactions. The preview was hosted by the Japanese American National Museum (the EW Players’ home, the David Henry Hwang Theatre around the block in Little Tokyo, was busy with performances of its latest play, “Po Boy Tango“).

The performance was directed by Tim Dang with terrific choreography (“the dancing was SICK,” said one under-40 audience member afterward) by Jason Tyler Chong, script by Qui Nguyen, lyrics by Beau Sia, music by Marc Macalintal, anime consultation by jane Wu and DJ Lino “DJ Linotype” Manansala. In a nutshell, the story revolves around a Filipino kid who moves with his mother to a dodgy part of Brooklyn and has to give up private school for a public school where a bully challenges him and his new friends to a street dance face-off. The kid, Norman Lee (played by Rynan Paguio) falls for the hot girlfriend, Cindy Chang (played by Laurie Cadevida) of the bully, “Wingnut” (Josh Curtis).

You’re familiar with the dynamics — the rest is up to the characters, the script the music and the dancing. And, it works. Beautifully and powerfully.

Afterwards, the audience discussion was interesting, and almost immediately revolved around a generation gap. Many people over 40 couldn’t understand the street talk and the music, and didn’t like the rapping so much. Those under 40 said they loved this even though they never go to theater. One older know-it-all (no, not me this time) focused unnecessarily, I thought, on whether using elements of anime in the production would taint the show with Japanese cultural elements because hip-hop is different in Japan than in the U.S., etc.

Several audience members including me had some concerns about the music being too separately either hip-hop and R&B or old-school stage musical style. Others didn’t think there was any traditional Broadway style in the songs, but I thought the slow numbers, even when sung with R&B soulfulness, had too much of the expository, wordy melodicism of Broadway musicals, the kind of songwriting that feels articifial and, well, stagey.

But that’s a small nit for me. I though the play was cool, and so did Erin. Sure, the story elements are old, but to see it told through the lens of the Asian American experience is fantastic. It also reflects a very real integration in young Asian Americans, of African American culture, especially rap and hip-hop. You nee only to tune in to any episode of “America’s Best Dance Crew” to see that for yourself.

We never ever get to see this kind of stuff in Denver, so it was great just to be there for the peek behind the curtain at something East West Players might put on stage some day. Afterward, we spoke with the troupe’s Literary Manager, Jeff Liu, and told him how excited we were by the project.

Liu explained that the idea for “Krunk Fu” came after a successful EW Players production of “Pippin,” the 1970s Broadway musical, with an Asian American cast. I had seen “Pippin” on Broadway back in the day with its original cast, which included Ben Vereen, Irene Ryan and John Rubinstein, and still love the music (it’s on my iPod) even though it’s stagey and Broadway-like. But it was a project of Motown and had a lot more R&B and soul elements than most Broadway productions of its day. The EW Players version modernized it with elements of hip-hop and anime. The success of the production led the troupe to come up with an original play that had those elements and explored them deeper.

“Krunk Fu” is the result.

Liu said the crew only rehearsed for a week so the quality of the preview was doubly impressive. He also said the development of a musicial takes even longer than the development of a dramatic production, so it might take a year or even two before “Krunk Fu” even makes it to the stage.

We hope it does.

East West Players is notable because it’s a cornerstone of Asian American culture. It’s one reason we wish we lived in Los Angeles. From the EW Players website:

Established in 1965, East West Players has been called “the nation’s pre-eminent Asian American theater troupe” (New York Times 12/16/01) for our award-winning productions blending Eastern and Western movement, costumes, language, and music. EWP has premiered over 100 plays and musicals about the Asian Pacific American experience and has held over 1,000 readings and workshops. Our emphasis is on building bridges between East and West, and one measure of our success is an audience of 56% Asians and a remarkable 44% non-Asian attendance.

EWP alumni include Mako, John Lone, B.D. Wong, David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda, Freda Foh Shen, Roberta Uno, R.A. Shiomi, Judith Nihei, Alec Mapa, Wakako Yamauchi, Amy Hill, Sala Iwamatsu, and Nobu McCarthy. East West Players has also had the opportunity to work with many respected artists and faculty such as actors Danny Glover, Tsai Chin, Lauren Tom, and Nancy Kwan, directors, Lisa Peterson and Oskar Eustis, musician Dan Kuramoto and instructors Calvin Remsberg and Fran Bennett

It was great to get a peek at “Krunk Fu Batle Battle,” and to see how the creative process works at East West Players. We look froward to this play, and others, getting their shot at the David Henry Hwang Theatre.

Hey, come to think of it, maybe “Karate Kid” would make a good musical?

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