‘The Karate Kid’ is making its pre-Broadway début in St. Louis

The year was 1984. Ronald Reagan was president, Michael Jackson was king, and the movies were on fire. Premiering that year alone was Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, Footloose, Romancing the Stone, and a little action flick called The Karate Kid, Robert Mark Kamen’s semi-autobiographical film about a teenage boy who learns martial arts from an unexpected friend to defeat a high school bully. “Wax on, wax off” entered the lexicon, Ralph Macchio’s star rose, and kids everywhere hastened to enroll in martial arts classes, hoping to perfect their crane kick. The movie would go on to inspire four more, plus a TV show and the Netflix series Cobra Kai. But in 1984, from a movie theater in Bozeman, Montana, Japanese exchange student Kumiko Yoshii watched the film with her host sister. “The character of Mr. Miyagi spoke to me a great deal,” Yoshii remembers. “I never thought that I would be working with the person who wrote the movie series.”

But she is. In early 2020, Yoshii, a producer and co-owner of New York–based Gorgeous Entertainment, was in the middle of a reading of The Karate Kid: The Musical (book by Kamen) when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Work on the musical halted for a couple of months but resumed via Zoom with director Amon Miyamoto in Tokyo, Kamen in Sonoma, choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid in San Diego, and Yoshii in New York City. The musical was ready for its trial run, but there was a problem: Because of delays caused by COVID, New York City venues had to push débuts to 2023. But then Yoshii met Jack Lane, the executive producer of STAGES St. Louis, who suggested that The Karate Kid: The Musical get its world premiere at STAGES’ new home, the Ross Family Theater at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, before heading to Broadway. Now Lane hopes to turn St. Louis into a tryout town.

“The Broadway shows are always flying over St. Louis,” Lane says. “Yes, we have the Fox for the road companies, but [companies] go to Chicago or Boston or LA to try out shows. I’m talking about a show that comes here and sits down, like in residency, and is very much created here—it’s not just coming in for a week or two. That’s what’s happening with Karate Kid.,

This has long been a goal for STAGES, but until the KPAC was built, the company didn’t have the infrastructure for it. KPAC has a footprint similar to a Broadway theater, an intimate house with 400 seats—smaller than the Fox—but a large backstage area with a 60-foot fly house to raise and lower scenery. On a recent visit to the theater, about a month and a half out from the premiere, crews are hoisting gigantic speakers 30 feet into the air. On the ground, a man grabs two long strips of white paper, flaps them, and executes a jump kick. The mood is light, but the pressure’s on. They’re about halfway through load-in, and five more semi trucks carrying equipment are set to arrive in the coming weeks.

“This is the first time we’re putting the Ferrari on the test track,” says KPAC technical coordinator Noah Parsons. “STAGES showed it off. Broadway’s really putting it to that professional-trade testing.” And this is only a mid-size production. Phantom of the Opera, Seventeen semi trucks’ worth of equipment, which Parsons says KPAC could likely pull off with some careful planning. STAGES marketing manager Brett Murray says that the musical theater company is already getting interest from bigger productions.

STAGES is hoping that becoming a tryout town could offer a boost to the local economy. The Karate Kid cast, crew, and orchestra is a mix of locals and New Yorkers. About 200 out-of-towners involved with the production will come to Kirkwood in the months leading up to the premiere and throughout the run, and they need lodging and meals. (Already, Parsons says, the New Yorkers are fans of Strange Donuts, a six-minute walk from KPAC.) STAGES is hopeful, too, that Karate Kid could be the start of attracting more out-of-town audience members. Murray says that people in 20 different states—including Nevada, Texas, and California—who have never purchased tickets from STAGES before have for Karate Kid. It’s helping the other shows in STAGES’ season as well, as some have bought tickets to see In the Heights and A Chorus Line.

STAGES is tight-lipped on Karate Kid details, but fans of the movie will recognize references in the stage production—this is not a complete departure—though it does incorporate more Japanese culture. All of the music, by Broadway up-and-comer Drew Gasparini, is original. Derek McLane, who designs sets for the Oscars and won a Tony for his work in Moulin Rouge!: The Musical, is serving as scenic designer. Bradley King, who won a Tony for the lighting design in Hadestown, is lending his touch as well. John Cardoza (Jagged Little Pill) will play Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, and Canadian actor Jovanni Sy will play Mr. Miyagi.

And in attendance will be Kamen, who is eager to see the movie based partly on his life take on a new form and in St. Louis. “The East Coast and West Coast, these people get all the stuff,” he says. “To be able to bring [the musical] and see people come out with enthusiasm, as opposed to cynicism, that was truly exciting to me.”

The Karate Kid: The Musical runs May 25–June 26.


The Stage Is Set

Two more productions make up the season at STAGES. Here’s a snapshot of each.

In the Heights | July 22–August 21

If you caught Hamilton at the Fox, why not round out your Summer of Lin-Manuel Miranda with In the Heights at STAGES? Set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, the musical is centered on bodega owner Usnavi, his love interest Vanessa, neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, and another couple, Benny and Nina, and their sueñitos, or little dreams. But when the summer heat causes a blackout, tragedy strikes.

A Chorus Line | September 9–October 9

It’s the show about an audition for a show. When a director narrows down a group of professional dancers at a tryout to 17, he gives them an unusual prompt: As part of the audition process, he’d like them to tell him about their pasts—highlights, heartbreaks, all of it. You likely know the Pulitzer Prize winner for the songs “I Hope I Get It,” “One,” and “What I Did For Love.” Or maybe from its staying power—it was one of Broadway’s longest-running shows.

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