Theater Review: KRUNK FU BATTLE BATTLE (L.A. – Downtown)

by Tony Frankel on May 25, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Theater Review: KRUNK FU BATTLE BATTLE (L.A. – Downtown)

WHAT THE FUNK?

When giving feedback at High School theatre competitions, adjudicators are reminded to encourage, not discourage young performers: negative criticism, however accurate, may dampen the spirit of gung-ho newcomers to the theatre. It is the judge’s task to support thespian tenderfoots by accentuating the positive, lest they become dismayed and give up on their ambitions. As such, written evaluations for misguided efforts tend to read, “Great Energy! Wow, what talent! Fantastic movement!”

Fear of crossing the fine line between inoffensive feedback and a more constructive viewpoint may be de rigueur for high school students, but it has created a disturbing trend in professional theatre critique whereby the few positive attributes of a show are overpraised and erroneous choices are practically ignored. But to what end? So that feelings are not hurt? By giving false or skewed feedback, we are actually cheating our future theatre artists who must better themselves if they wish to succeed. Theatre must be held to a higher level: the artists who face up to the challenge of cultivating their craft will be rewarded with the gift of artistic self-expression, not to mention grateful audiences; which is why this reviewer believes that it is the duty of a theatre reviewer to formally assess or examine a theatre piece with a view to changing it if necessary.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle - East West PlayersNo doubt critics will be forgiving of the shortcomings in Krunk Fu Battle Battle, the world premiere Hip Hop musical directed by Tim Dang for East West Players. You see, Krunk is so crammed with contagiously fun urban dancing – and it has such an exuberant cast – that one may forgive it for being a cushy mess, although not a lamentable mess…meaning that there is an idea for a new musical here that invites further exploration, but the originators need to return to the drawing board with an auteur in tow.

Krunk is so geared to a young, urban, in-the-know, hip hop demographic that it feels as if the creators were more intent on inspiring young people to come to the theatre than on storytelling and a well-crafted show. I dare them to do it all.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle - East West PlayersJean Lee (Joan Almedilla) has escaped the clutches of her tyrannical mother in Connecticut by moving into the seedy Chinatown of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park with her son, Norman (Lawrence Kao). After bumping into the B-Boy bigwig Three-Point (Leng Phe), the neighborhood neophyte Norman inadvertently challenges this supreme ruler of beat dancing to “battle.” This gives Norman one month to become the Break Boy to beat – if he does, then his first love and slam poet Sweet Cindy Chang (Liza B. Domingo) will attend Homecoming with him. Norman is aided by his new pal Wingnut (Matt Tayao) and the building Superintendent Sir Master Cert (Blas Lorenzo), who was once a B-Boy himself and still knows the moves. Before you can say, “Wait a minute, this sounds familiar,” Cert refers to Norman as the Karate Kid.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle - East West PlayersThe show’s biggest obstacle is that we’re not on board from the beginning. The title alone is confusing: Krunk, according to the Urban Dictionary, is either Crazy Drunk or Chronic Drunk. Krunk Fu means kicking someone’s ass while intoxicated (though no one drinks in the show). A Battle is a beat-dancing competition (a.k.a.  “Breakdancing” to the media).  Then doubled up, Battle Battle means…I have no idea what it means. Instead of opening the show with a clever glossary interspersed with character and story development, we get a cryptic intro by Sir Master Cert:

Now stop! Freeze! There’s more to this story
The lowdown on this showdown goes beyond glory
Before their time and since I was a shorty
This space
Was reserved only

For the B-Boys who came to rule
The winners do more than pity the fool
The stakes are high
Mistakes go bye

To win the rights takes more than being fly

Just ask me, the B-Boy trapped in time
Breaking it down with old school rhymes
Battled K funk to make my name
But all my moves went down in flames

And since that day I’ve stayed the same
Even when my style became played
I remained the essence of the game

To drop knowledge from back in the day
More detailed than four elements
More in depth than just common sense
And I’ve returned to the scene they’ve set
To narrate this tale for y’all

Do the book writer Qui Ngyuen and lyricist Beau Sia actually expect me to understand what’s going on? Sounds more like Theatre of the Absurd goes Hip Hop. Cert finishes with:

Are you ready, L.A.?
There are so many fine women out tonight.

And so it goes.

It is impossible to recollect the vocal music by Marc Macalintal.  And a good portion of the evening’s “lyrics” were drowned out by the loud THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of the music, as if the atrocious sound were coming from the back seat of a souped-up car (no sound designer is credited). Were it not for a few key elements – Dang’s energetic direction (like Guys and Dolls N the ‘hood); dance music beat by Rynan Paguio and Jason Taylor Chong; fetching performances; and wicked choreography (also by Chong) – this review would be far more contemptuous.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle - East West PlayersKrunk’s incongruities are too numerous to cite, but here are two: if Sweet Cindy Chang is so sweet, why would she dare Norman to battle her boyfriend, Three-Point? Because she can’t break up with the thug herself? This makes her character unlikable from the start.  Second, there was confusion as to whether “Battle” was a gang war or a dance contest – or both: after all, Three-Point did send his goons to beat up Norman. (When Momma Jean freaks out after discovering that Norman will be in a Battle, I thought, “The Mom is furious because her kid’s gonna have a dance-off?”)

East West Players is reaching out to new forms, but this form is confusing and it seems that the originators on board have yet to be mentored in theatrical composition. For the most part, songs do not heighten the emotion, develop character or move the plot along – and imperfect rhymes, although deep-rooted in Hip Hop, simply do not fall easy on the ear.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle - East West PlayersIt’s disturbing that the “new audiences” EWP hopes to attract are those who don’t care if the lyrics are unintelligible and are virtually encouraged to talk and shout during the performance. Does “new audience” mean youthful and undiscerning or those who have yet to turn to theatre as the preeminent art form? I assert that new audiences will be attracted to great storytelling told creatively, regardless of its genre. At this point, Krunk feels more like an excuse for a dance party than a theatrical entertainment. If this were a high school production, however, the evaluation would be, “Great Energy! Wow, what talent! Fantastic movement!”

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Michael Lamont

Krunk Fu Battle Battle
scheduled to close June 26 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.eastwestplayers.org or call (213) 625-7000

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