I’ll admit right off the bat –I am completely biased. I am a huge So You Think You Can Dance fan, and by extension Cole Horibe is the primary reason I went to see this show. Months ago when I saw the casting call I even forwarded it to him via Twitter–and while I’m not vain enough to take credit for him accepting, I had a feeling he would be a great fit for the role. What I did not expect, however, was the power of the ensemble and all involved in staging this production at the Signature Theatre.
Tony winning playwright David Henry Hwang has crafted a fantastical journey through the life and the psyche of Bruce Lee, using elements of Chinese opera, stage combat and contemporary dance (with able assists from director Leigh Silverman, fight captain Emmanuel Brown, and choreographer Sonya Tayeh) to guide the audience through the story. Viewers of SYTYCD were already privy to Cole Horibe’s acting chops, so it’s no great surprise the level of commitment he throws into his starring role. What is refreshing is that while it is his character’s story, the ensemble carries an equal amount of weight in telling the tale…if not more so, as most of the actors are playing multiple roles. Particular standouts are the interactions with his father (Francis Jue), his wife (Phoebe Strole), his manager (Jon Rua), his student-turned-friend Toshi (Peter Kim) and his young son Brandon (Bradley Fong, who also tackles the role of young Bruce/Jun Fan in flashback scenes). Each interplay allows the audience to see the conflicting and balancing forces that drive many of Lee’s choices, actions and reactions to what life has presented him with, helping to bring a vulnerable humanity to the larger-than-life badass image most of us envision. We see Lee’s struggle with acceptance, from the expected traditional mores of Asian culture to attempting to asserting individuality and pride within the submissive confines of Hollywood perceptions and stereotypes; we see his uncertainty in his role as husband, father and mentor and his tenacious drive to muscle his way into approval–and we ultimately see him resolve his conflicts by easing back from his struggles to allow for other options, or to quote the man himself, “the best way to fight is to stop fighting.”
The company does a wonderful job of believably weaving in and out of their characters, most notable of those being Clifton Duncan as Bruce’s celebrity student, actor James Coburn. There’s a fine line between suspension of disbelief and character embodiment, and Duncan’s simple mannerisms leapfrogged that line enough for it to be nearly visually possible. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scenic and lighting design, which could qualify as characters of their own considering how each turned a largely static set into several different worlds without complication.
Not many productions manage to transcend a pleasant night at the theater into a full-on life experience. If you haven’t already been to see Kung Fu you have less than a week to indulge. Believe me, this is a journey worth taking.
Kung Fu is playing at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre through Sunday, April 6. The cast also includes Kristen Faith Oei, Emmanuel Brown, Ari Loeb, Christopher Vo and Reed Luplau.