By Clark Collis
Updated February 25, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

Thanks to the success of 1973’s Bruce Lee-starring chopsockey classic Enter the Dragon, everybody was ”kung fu fighting” in the mid-’70s — or at least enough folks were for Carl Douglas to make the claim in his disco hit of the same name. However, you won’t learn this from Kung Fu, a new Off Broadway play-with-choreography about Lee by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Chinglish) which covers neither his film career, nor his mysterious death at the age of 33 just before the release of Enter? Rather, Hwang details Lee’s relationship with his wife, Linda, his recollections of rebelling against his actor father, and the numerous travails Lee endured while attempting to clamber Hollywood’s greasy and often racist pole.

Directed by frequent Hwang collaborator Leigh Silverman, the result is a curiosity — not just a look at a superstar that never shows him actually becoming one but a work whose martial arts-infused dance numbers (overseen by So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Sonya Tayeh) whet the appetite for songs that never arrive. But there is much to enjoy here, including the performances. Former SYTYCD contestant Cole Horibe and Phoebe Strole are believable as the central couple, while Clifton Duncan gets laughs as one of Lee’s Hollywood martial-arts pupils, big-screen legend James Coburn. One imagines the hipster star of The Magnificent 7 and Our Man Flint would get a kick out of being played by an African American man — though maybe not the streak of Tinseltown petulance that Hwang gives the character. B

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