Musical, “The Karate Kid, the Musical”
Company, STAGES Louis
Venue, Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 210 E. Monroe Ave., Kirkwood
Tickets, $60 to $85; contact 314-821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Highlights: STAGES Louis opens its 2022 season by serving as the host venue for the dynamic, electrifying world premiere of “The Karate Kid, the Musical,” a show based on the hit 1984 nonmusical movie. Propelled by spectacular choreography and a powerful, riveting rock score, “The Karate Kid, the Musical” shines in its pre-Broadway debut.
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Story, In 1984, 17-year-old Danny LaRusso and his widowed mother, Lucille, move from New Jersey to Los Angeles to begin a new chapter in their lives after the death of Danny’s father. They are soon befriended by Mr. Miyagi, the kindly custodian of Okinawan descent who maintains their apartment complex. Mr. Miyagi welcomes them to his own humble living quarters, where he shows Danny his prized bonsai tree.
Danny is greeted at his new high school by fellow classmate Ali, a cheerleader from a wealthy background who has recently broken off her relationship with another, possessive student named Johnny Lawrence. Johnny resents Ali’s friendship with Danny and bullies him, as witnessed by his timid gang of supporters.
After an even more severe beating one night by Johnny and his pals, Danny is rescued by Mr. Miyagi, who dispatches the attackers with surprising karate moves. Danny implores Mr. Miyagi to teach him self-defense with karate, but only after Mr. Miyagi convinces him that karate is as much about the mind and spirit as it is physical defense.
Mr. Miyagi and Danny visit the Cobra Kai dojo, where Johnny and other students are trained by the harsh sensei, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam veteran named Kreese who believes in not only defeating but also punishing his opponents. When Mr. Miyagi’s overtures for peace between Danny and Johnny’s forces is rejected by Kreese, Mr. Miyagi suggests that Danny compete in an upcoming karate tournament. Kreese agrees to have Johnny back off the bullying while his student and Danny prepare for the competition.
At first chafing at the menial tasks given him by his karate mentor, Danny learns to understand the purpose behind Mr. Miyagi’s orders for washing and waxing cars, painting fences and other chores, which emphasize “muscle memory” for defensive karate moves.
With the reluctant support of his mother and the friendship of Ali, which Danny must earn anew after a misunderstanding on his part, Danny enters the tournament. He heeds Mr. Miyagi’s directive to find his personal balance and achieve inner peace, regardless of the outcome of the match. But will Kreese and his pupil, Johnny, fight fairly?
Other Info, Amon Miyamoto, director of this pre-Broadway presentation, says in his program notes: “The reason why I wanted to adapt ‘The Karate Kid’ into a musical is that I thought it was necessary in this time of divisions created by modern politics, the COVID-19 crisis and war.”
Miyamoto’s words should strike a resonant chord with any responsible person and underscore the show’s message of tolerance and acceptance. Miyamoto adds that “the essence of karate [is] acceptance of a different world and a different way of thinking. In karate, there is no first attack … but eliminating conflict in the first place.”
Jack Lane, executive producer for Stages St. Louis, is no stranger to Broadway shows, having co-produced “The Prom” and other Broadway hits. His connections helped attract this world premiere for a pre-Broadway run – the first major residency of a pre-Broadway musical ever in the metro area, according to the STAGES news release.
Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the original screenplay for “The Karate Kid,” returns 38 years later to contribute the book for this musical version, which maintains the original 1984 setting. Drew Gasparini’s music and lyrics move the story powerfully along. In truth, the pulsating, driving rock numbers are more satisfying than the ballads, the latter of which take up too much time in Act II, slowing down the story.
Choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid underscores the galvanic effect of Gasparini’s music with a series of electrifying, explosive numbers that dazzle the senses from the ample stage at the 530-seat Ross Family Theater at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. The number introducing the Cobra Kai studio is especially energizing with its precision dancing.
Technical aspects of the production are all first-rate, including the appealing scenic design by Derek McLane, which contrasts the simple apartments of the LaRussos and Mr. Miyagi with the stylish Cobra Kai studio and a swanky restaurant. Kudos also to the unlisted props manager for the two cool vintage autos on display in Mr. Miyagi’s garage.
Bradley King’s lighting design spectacularly illuminates the set, and Ayako Maeda’s costumes reflect not only the early ’80s era but also the crisp karate uniforms. The sizzling projection design by Peter Nigrini further complements the setting, as does Kai Harada’s sound design.
Conductor Andrew Resnick leads an accomplished orchestra of musicians, with Kelly Thomas joining him on keyboards. Also contributing to the solid musical accompaniment are Ben Butler, Travis Mattison and Shaun Robinson on guitar; JD Tolman on reeds; Bryan Foote on trumpet and flugelhorn; Evan Palmer on trombone and bass trombone; Abbie Steiling on violin and viola; Rania Iqbal on cello; and Alerica Anderson on bass.
Jovanni Sy leads the excellent cast with a winning portrayal of Mr. Miyagi. Si conveys the humor as well as the warmth and dedication of the composed Mr. Miyagi, who has tragedies of his own in his background, including the confinement of his family at a World War II internment camp. When Danny asks incredulously, “Where did those cars come from?”, Miyagi replies simply, “Detroit.”
John Cardoza is fine as Danny, depicting the lad’s decent nature, as well as his desire to handle his own problems, albeit with the invaluable tutoring of his newfound friend, Mr. Miyagi. Cardoza and Sy build a believable and affecting relationship in their portrayals.
Kate Baldwin brings maternal love as well as determination to begin life anew as Lucille LaRusso, and Jetta Juriansz shows the poise and polish of Ali. Alan H. Green is suitably villainous as the menacing and resentful karate sensei, Kreese, and Jake Bentley Young as Johnny ably conveys both the boy’s bullying and his emerging better nature.
“The Karate Kid, the Musical” has a good story, if not the most original. Kamen does a solid job creating believable characters in a situation based on his own experiences. Miyamoto’s meticulous direction guides the characters and the action admirably.
You can see “The Karate Kid, the Musical” from STAGES through June 26 and be among the first to catch a show its producers hope is Broadway-bound, perhaps in 2023. In the meantime, the creatives behind the production will be nurturing and perfecting it, much like a beloved bonsai.