Review of The Karate Kid – The Musical at Stages St. Louis

    On opening night at Stages St. Louis, the excitement leading up to a world premiere gave way to the excitement of the show itself. The Karate Kid – The Musical is a winner.

    The show is an adaptation of the 1984 movie, The Karate Kid, which was one of the highest grossing films of the year. It launched a long-lasting media franchise that includes three sequels and a streaming series currently on Netflix.

    The movie’s screenwriter, Robert Mark Kamen, is also the author of the musical’s book. He retained the movie’s setting and its basic plot. High schooler Daniel LaRusso and his mother Lucille have moved from New Jersey to California to get a fresh start. When Daniel becomes friendly with a girl named Ali Mills, he makes an enemy of her ex-boyfriend, Johnny Lawrence. He uses his expertise in karate to bully Daniel.

    During one beatdown, Daniel is rescued by Mr. Miyagi, the maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment complex. He singlehandedly defeats Johnny and all his lackeys, who are all students at the Cobra Kai dojo. Mr. Miyagi is an immigrant who learned karate in his native Okinawa.

    To gain Daniel a respite from the harassment, Mr. Miyagi makes an agreement with John Kreese, the combative Cobra Kai sensei. Daniel and Kreese’s students will settle their differences on neutral ground at an upcoming karate tournament. To prepare Daniel, Mr. Miyagi teaches him muscle memory for karate using a highly unconventional technique.

    The highlight of the musical is the choreography by husband-and-wife team Keone and Mari Madrid. It is a remarkably fresh and brilliant fusion of elements from martial arts, Japanese culture, hip hop, and theatrical dancing.

    The music and lyrics are by Drew Gasparini. The songs impressively develop characters and advance the story. Kamen’s book retains the charm of the movie while adding to the stories of some of the minor characters.

    The excellent cast includes, in alphabetical order:

    • Kate Baldwin as Lucille LaRusso
    • John Cardoza as Daniel LaRusso
    • Luis-Pablo Garcia as Freddie Fernandez
    • Alan H. Green as John Kreese
    • Jetta Juriansz as Ali Mills
    • Abby Matsusaka as Kiyoko
    • Jovanni Sy as Chojun Miyagi
    • Jake Bentley Young as Johnny Lawerence

    Derek McLane’s scenic design features highly reconfigurable panels reminiscent of Japanese screens. The fluid staging by director Amon Miyamoto fully exploits the flexibility of the panels, whose look is changed radically by Bradley King’s lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projections. The high standards of the production are maintained by Ayako Maeda’s costumes, Kai Harada’s sound, and Dennis Milam Bensie’s wigs and hair design.

    The introduction of the Cobra Kai dojo is a spectacular number, and the climax is even more thrilling than it is in the movie because the action is live.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Danny Zofness of DTK Studios