Kung Fu Off Broadway Review: Cole Horibe Rules as Bruce Lee

Kung Fu Off Broadway Review: Cole Horibe Rules as Bruce Lee

“Kung Fu” is a classic (some might sneer cliché) showbiz saga about an unlikely nobody who dreams of Hollywood stardom. Tailor it around the legendary Bruce Lee, however, and the hoary scenario assumes fresh cultural meanings. Bouncing off author David Henry Hwang’s smooth, stylish storytelling, director Leigh Silverman’s production unleashes a series of rowdy rock-‘em-sock-‘em martial arts sequences that are beautiful and seem extremely realistic.

Premiering on Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, “Kung Fu” is a winning event for those audiences who love red-hot theatricality as much as it is for fans who love Bruce Lee. Along the way of dramatizing the action star’s life, Hwang thoughtfully addresses issues about masculine Asian identity in the United States. The result is a smart, entertaining bio-drama about a cool guy who overcame racial obstacles with brilliant bursts of kinetic genius.

In much the same way, the sizzling theatrics created by Silverman, choreographer Sonya Tayeh, fight director Emmanuel Brown, the designers and the 12-member company punctuate Hwang’s drama.

Wait, there’s more. Leaping into the New York theater world is former “So You Think You Can Dance” near-winner Cole Horibe, who is tremendous as Bruce Lee. A magnetic presence, all expressive eyebrows and gestures, Horibe acts naturally, moves beautifully and projects intensely an ambitious soul burning to become a star. The detail of Horibe’s portrayal is supple and convincing, even to the way that Lee’s accent modifies over the years.

Lee’s story unfolds within a shabby martial arts studio, much like the one in Seattle, where Lee began teaching kung-fu classes in the 1960s. These dingy white cinderblock walls and mirrors transform into other locations in David Zinn’s fluent setting, which easily handles the action sequences vividly realized by designers Ben Stanton (lighting), Anita Yavich (costume), Darron L. West (sound) and Darrel Maloney (projections). Composer Du Yun’s music effectively heightens the atmospherics.

This fusion of slick storytelling, kinetic action and bold visuals is enhanced by the ensemble. In addition to Horibe’s memorable debut, there are strong performances by Francis Jue as Lee’s disparaging father, Phoebe Strole as Lee’s supportive wife and Bradley Fong in a dual role as Lee’s son and as his boyhood self.  The remaining company members ably depict several roles each and all but knock themselves out during the high-flying fight scenarios, which Silverman’s staging gracefully integrates into the drama.

Yeah, sure, some savants will surely gripe that the father-son conflicts and who-am-I identity issues of “Kung Fu” are variations on “The Jazz Singer” but so what, since they still click and are bolstered so well by the exciting staging. Plus, Cole Horibe is the most charismatic newcomer to hit the scene since Nina Arianda dawned in “Venus in Fur” and he is really somebody to see.

Original Article