East West Players closes its best season in years with Krunk Fu Battle Battle, quite possibly the first full-fledged hip-hop musical ever, and a sensational one at that.

Combining all four elements of hip-hop (music, rap, dance, and street art), Krunk Fu Battle Battle tells the tale of teenaged Norman Lee (Lawrence Kao), freshly arrived in Brooklyn’s Chinatown with his youngish mom Jean (Joan Almedilla), a native of the New York borough, who moved to Connecticut years before and has now returned to the old hood.

Norman soon meets a city kid nicknamed Wingnut (Matt Tayao) who makes fun of the newbie’s nerdy clothes but welcomes him in song (“Sunset Park”) to Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where street merchants sell everything from bootlegged CDs to fresh lobsters. Before we know it, Norman has reemerged with new, hipper threads and a new lease on life in the big city.

Clothes may help Norman fit in, but it doesn’t take long for him to learn that even dressed not to stand out amongst the Brooklyn boyz, there is one section of his high school campus that is off limits to all but a few. Only tough guy Three-Point (Leng Phe) and his posse, LA (Cesar Cipriano) and Hype (Troy Terashita), get dibs on “The Yard.” (Costume designer Annalisa Adams makes sure we know who is who by clothing Wingnut’s crew in bright colors and Three-Point’s in blacks and grays.)

Not particularly taken by the idea of being excluded from The Yard, Norman learns that there is just one way to gain the right to hang out there, and that is to meet Three-Point’s challenge to a “Krunk Fu Battle Battle.” With a mere thirty days to get ready to do battle (and thereby avoid being “exiled from Brooklyn”), klutzy Norman has to work fast to get his dance stuff together.

Narrating Norman’s urban adventures is 30something Sir Master Cert (Blas Lorenzo), whose responsibility it is to show young Norman how to breakdance (“It’s an ancient Chinese secret”) as the older fellow tries to earn himself a place back in former sweetheart Jean’s heart. As for Norman’s vascular organ, it belongs to tough girl Cindy Chang (Liza B. Domingo), whom he attempts to get to know in “It’s Gotta Begin Somewhere,” Krunk Fu Battle Battle’s answer to Rent’s “Light My Candle.”

Twelve-year-old Junior (Evan Moua) becomes the third member of Wingnut’s crew, a blue-haired Japanese girl named Moe Moko (Megumi Tatsumikawa) completing the ensemble as both sides prepare for the titular battle in a series of thrillingly choreographed dance sequences.

There’s something refreshing about a musical that doesn’t have its gangstas fighting with fists, knives, and worse, but makes breakdancing (aka B-boying) the key to campus or neighborhood supremacy. Add to this an exceptionally talented bunch of triple-threats and a dozen infectious song-and/or-dance numbers (dance music by Rynan Paguio and Jason Tyler Chong, vocal music by Marc Macalintal, and lyrics by Beau Sia, music directed by Macalintal, choreographed by Chong, and DJ’ed by Marjorie Light aka DJ Ginger) and you’ve got ninety minutes of Hi-NRG excitement.

Qui Nguyen’s book is light on plot, but scores high marks for its characters’ authentic street lingo and the spotlight it shines on the Asian American hip-hop community.

Tim Dang directs Krunk Fu Battle Battle with skill, panache, and an understanding of Asian B-boy culture, aided and abetted by as talented a cast as imaginable, picked first and foremost for their dance skills. Though some had never spoken or even sung on stage before this production, you’d be hard-pressed to guess just who those are without reading their bios. Chong’s spectacular choreography gives these phenoms hardly a moment to breathe, and yet they scarcely break a sweat.

Tayao has dance moves to take your breath away, even as he charms you with more cocky sex appeal than you’re likely to see on any stage any time soon. Kao so completely fits the cute nerd stereotype when he makes his first appearance as Norman that his own thrilling dance moves are all the more surprising and impressive. Broadway’s Almedilla breaks free from her Miss Saigon image as a hip, feisty Mom with a pop belt that hits the rafters in “Broken.”

A terrific Domingo makes for a sassy-but-sweet Cindy, Lorenzo demonstrates that you don’t have to be a teenager to B-boy with the best of them, and Phe is a powerhouse as a bad boy you probably wouldn’t mind being bad with. Dance dynamos Cipriano, Moua, Tatsumikawa, and Terashita complete the cast with seemingly limitless energy and charisma.

Adam Flemming once again proves himself one of our top up-and-coming set (and projection) designers, creating just the right urban Asian American setting for Norman’s adventures to unfold in. Dan Weingarten scores high marks for his exciting, multi-colorful lighting design. Adams’ costumes are a great blend of the urban and the Asian. Diana Lee Inosanto has choreographed some exhilarating fight sequences. Ondina V. Dominguez is stage manager, VIVIS assistant stage manager.

Following Mysterious Skin, Crimes Of The Heart, and Wrinkles, Krunk Fu Battle Battle completes a season East West Players is going to find hard to top with a production likely to thrill musical theater enthusiasts and newbies alike. For a hip-hoppingly good time, Krunk Fu Battle Battle can’t be beat.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
May 18, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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