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The Karate Kid: The Musical
Book by Robert Mark Kamen, Music and Lyrics by Drew Gasparini
Directed by Amon Miyamoto
Choreographed by Keone & Mari Madrid
STAGES St. Louis
June 1, 2022

Jake Bentley Young, Alan H. Green (Center) and Cast of The Karate Kid: The Musical
Photo: STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis brought some big surprises with the announcement of its latest show. Yes, St. Louis is hosting a genuine pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical, and yes, that musical is a screen-to-stage adaptation of the hit 1984 movie that led to a whole series of sequels and spin-offs: The Karate Kid. That news was enough to spark a lot of anticipation and speculation. The current Broadway trend seems to be in favor of lots of movies-turned-musicals, some that are hits, and some that aren’t. Which would this be? The answer to that question is still undecided, but for me, I would say that while it’s not perfect, it has a lot of promise. 

It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. The opening night audience was energetic and enthusiastic, providing lots of mid-show encouragement and a rapturous standing ovation at the end. For my part, I found it enjoyable, with some true moments of poignancy and heart, especially when focusing on the story’s title protagonist, Daniel LaRusso (John Cardoza)–newly moved from New Jersey to Southern California–and his newfound friend and Karate teacher, Okinawan-American Mr. Miyagi (Jiovanni Sy). These two are the heart and soul of this production, showing a strong, credible bond between the characters and excellent stage presence, and especially strong, emotive vocals from Cardoza especially. The story is essentially the same as the film, but with a few changes, most of which are welcome, such as the expanding of the role of Daniel’s new friend Freddie Fernandez (impressive newcomer Luis-Pablo Garcia), who is given a compelling story here. There’s also a bit of an extended role for Ali Mills (Jetta Juriansz), the girl from school that catches Daniel’s eye, much to the annoyance of her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (Jake Bentley Young), who leads a gang of bullies from Cobra Kai, Karate dojo run by the angry and vengeful John Kreese (Alan H. Green), a Vietnam vet who seems to have a grudge against the whole world. When Johnny and his cronies make it their mission to make Daniel’s life miserable, Miyagi suggests to Kreese that they take their fight to the local youth Karate tournament, and after a series of training sequences and conflicts, the match is on, just like in the movie, and there’s a lot of action and drama along the way.

What I especially liked about this production is the focus on Miyagi and Daniel’s relationship, as well as Miyagi’s backstory, with a poignant song an flashback scene focusing on his past with his young wife Kiyoko (Abby Matsusaka, in excellent voice). The scenes in the arcade with the kids from school are also fun, especially the ones involving Freddie, who gets to lead a fun, bouncy, 80’s-pop flavored number called “Dreams Come True” in Act 2. There are also memorable, and especially crowd-pleasing, scenes at the Cobra Kai dojo led by Green’s gleefully menacing Kreese, and some dynamic choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid. The choreography is strong throughout, with a compelling conceit of having backing dancers in many of the scenes to support the performers. There’s also believable chemistry between the immensely likable Cardoza as Daniel and the equally excellent Juriansz as Ali.  The only problem I have to do with the casting isn’t about a performance, but about an underwritten role for the always excellent Kate Baldwin, who plays Daniel’s mother, Lucille. Two-time Tony nominee Baldwin was one of my favorite performers back when she was doing shows at the Muny before I started this blog, and I was consistently impressed by how much substance she brought to her roles, but here, she isn’t given much of a chance. While Baldwin gives a strong performance as usual, and she does have some good moments with Cardoza and a few occasions to show off her impressive vocals, her character disappears for much of the show to the point of almost seeming irrelevant. Still, all the leads are strong, even when they aren’t given a lot to do, and Drew Gasparini’s  score is fun, for the most part, but some songs are more memorable than others. 

Staging-wise, the show is a little “smaller” than I was expecting for a musical that’s aiming for Broadway, but it fills the stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center well, and I assume they will scale some of the production values up when the time comes. Derek McLane’s set is colorful and 80’s inspired, and the scene transitions are smooth a fluid, aided by the ensemble members who largely drive the scene-changes. There are also excellent detailed costumes by Ayako Maeda, and stunning lighting design by Bradley King and eye-catching projections by Peter Nigrini. The overall look is retro, with the musical retaining the film’s mid-80’s setting, and the overall style and flair are especially well done. There are especially impressive technical moments in Miyagi’s training scenes and the Cobra Kai sequences, with all the elements working together to tell the story in an eye-catching and occasionally thrilling manner. It’s also great to see a live orchestra in the pit at STAGES, sounding great here as conducted by music director and keyboard player Andrew Resnick.

The past and the future are onstage at STAGES at the moment–the past being the 80’s setting of the show, and all the retro elements, and the future being the promise of more pre-Broadway tryouts of developing productions in St. Louis. The Karate Kid: The Musical is a promising show, and ultimately entertaining even if there are elements that can stand to be improved and tightened before this show makes its eventual bow in New York. Still, it’s a fun show, for the most part, with heartwarming moments, humor, drama, and action, and I look forward to seeing how it develops on it’s way to Broadway.

Cast of The Karate Kid: The Musical
Photo: STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting The Karate Kid: The Musical at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until June 26, 2022

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