It was 1984. Ronald Reagan was president, Michael Jackson was king and the movies were on fire. The premiere that year alone was Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, Footloose, Romancing the Stone, and a short action movie titled The Karate Kid, the semi-autobiographical film by Robert Mark Kamen about a teenager who learns martial arts with an unexpected friend to defeat a high school bully. “Wax on, wax off” entered the lexicon, Ralph Macchio’s star rose, and children around the world rushed to enroll in martial arts classes, hoping to perfect their crane kick. The film will 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 lot,” Yoshii recalls. “I never thought I would work with the person who wrote the film series.”
But she is. At the start of 2020, Yoshii, producer and co-owner of New York-based Gorgeous Entertainment, was in the middle of reading The Karate Kid: the musical (Kamen’s book) when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Work on the musical paused for a few 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. The musical was ready for its tryout, but there was a problem: Due to delays caused by COVID, New York theaters had to push the debut to 2023. But then Yoshii met producer Jack Lane. executive 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 hitting Broadway. Now Lane hopes to turn St. Louis into a test town.
“Broadway shows always fly over St. Louis,” Lane says. “Yes, we have 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, like in residence, and a lot of it is created here – it doesn’t just come for a week or two. This is what happens with Karate Kid.”
This has long been a goal for STAGES, but until the KPAC was built, the company lacked the necessary infrastructure. KPAC has a footprint similar to a Broadway theater, an intimate 400-seat house – smaller than Fox – but a large backstage area with a 60-foot flying house to raise and lower the set. On a recent visit to the theater, about a month and a half away from the premiere, crews hoist gigantic loudspeakers 30 feet into the air. On the ground, a man grabs two long strips of white paper, waves them around, and performs a jump kick. The atmosphere is light, but the pressure is there. They are about halfway through loading, and five more tractor-trailers carrying equipment are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
“This is the first time we’ve put the Ferrari on the test track,” said KPAC technical coordinator Noah Parsons. “STAGES showed it. Broadway really puts him to the test of this professional profession. And that’s just a medium-sized production. The Phantom of the Opera? Seventeen tractor-trailers of equipment, which Parsons says KPAC could likely pull off with careful planning. STAGES marketing director Brett Murray says the musical theater company is already attracting interest from bigger productions.
STAGES hopes that becoming a test city could give a boost to the local economy. the Karate Kid the cast, crew, and orchestra are a mix of locals and New Yorkers. Around 200 foreigners involved in the production will be coming to Kirkwood in the months leading up to the premiere and throughout the run, and they require accommodation and meals. (Already, says Parsons, New Yorkers are fans of Strange Donuts, a six-minute walk from KPAC.) STAGES also hopes that Karate Kid could be the start of attracting more out-of-town viewers. Murray says people from 20 different states, including Nevada, Texas and California, who have never bought tickets from STAGES before, have to Karate Kid. It also helps the other STAGES season shows, as some have bought tickets to see In the heights and A chorus line.
STAGES is discreet about Karate Kid details, but fans of the film will recognize references in the stage production – it’s not a complete departure – although it incorporates more Japanese culture. All of the music, by up-and-coming Broadway artist Drew Gasparini, is original. Derek McLane, who designs sets for the Oscars and won a Tony for his work in Red Mill ! : Musical comedy, holds the position of scenographer. Bradley King, who won a Tony for lighting design in Hadesville, also lends its touch. John Cardoza (Little shredded pill) will play Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, and Canadian actor Jovanni Sy will play Mr. Miyagi.
And there will be Kamen, who can’t wait to see the film based in part on his life take on a new form and in St. Louis. “East Coast and West Coast, these people get it all,” he says. “Being able to bring [the musical] and seeing people come out with enthusiasm, as opposed to cynicism, was really exciting for me.
The Karate Kid: the musical from May 25 to June 26.
The stage is set
Two other productions complete the STAGES season. Here is an overview of each.
In the Heights | July 22–August 21
If you caught hamilton at Fox, why not complete your Summer of Lin-Manuel Miranda with In the heights to INTERNSHIPS? Set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, the musical centers on bodega owner Usnavi, his love Vanessa, neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, and another couple, Benny and Nina, and their suenitos, 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 limits a group of professional dancers to a tryout at 17, he gives them an unusual prompt: As part of the audition process, he’d like them to tell him about their past – highs, heartbreaks , all of this. You probably know the Pulitzer Prize winner for the songs “I Hope I Get It”, “One” and “What I Did For Love”. Or maybe its stamina – it was one of Broadway’s longest-running shows.