In the video game Mortal Kombat, an advanced player can guide characters to lop off an opponent's head or rip out a nemesis' spinal cord.
In "Mortal Kombat--Live on Stage," the audience will have to be content with choreographed martial arts, gymnastics, techno-pop music, lasers, video and illusion. None of these, by the way, involves drawing blood.
The Mortal Kombat entertainment machine--which also includes toys, a feature film, an animated video, an upcoming CD-ROM, and home video versions of the Mortal Kombat arcade games (the latest installment hit stores last week)--has come under fire from critics who say the popular game series is too violent.
But creators of the stage show, which rolls into The Pond of Anaheim on Saturday, say they've come up with a 90-minute program that's suitable for grade-school kids and their parents.
The theatrical production, they say, stresses action and drama over the graphic violence of the arcade and video games. Those games involve buffed-out fantasy characters (in costumes baring perfect abs, pecs and cleavage) pitted against each other in martial-arts conflicts, a concept that has attracted lots of attention from its largely male, roughly 8- to 18-year-old audience.
The action grows more gruesome as play becomes more advanced, escalating from a few spurts of realistic looking blood to those aforementioned decapitations and the like.
The games have generated revenues of about $2 billion since the series debuted in 1992. Meanwhile, New Line Cinema's action adventure "Mortal Kombat" film has raked in about $70 million domestically since opening in August and is expected to sell about a gazillion copies when it is released on video in January.
The stage show kicked off its yearlong, 200-city tour last month at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has used Mortal Kombat's notoriety as a platform for attacks against violent video games. And a number of parents, Irvine's Laurie Sklar among them, limit their children's access to entertainment of this ilk because they feel it desensitizes children to violence and contributes to the number of violent crimes perpetrated by adolescents.
"I used to be more lenient about letting my sons play the game," said Sklar, whose children are 10 and 13. "But my husband and I clamped down when we saw that they weren't able to differentiate between the violence they saw on TV and the violence of the video game.
"It got to the point where we'd be watching news reports of some terrible violence, and the boys would laugh at it like it was a big game. They didn't realize that this was real life and people don't just get up and walk away after the blood and guts have flown."
In a phone interview from his Santa Monica office, the show's executive producer and the film's producer, Larry Kasanoff, admitted "there was certainly some concern about the game's violence early on," but maintained that in the film and stage show, the fighting is used more to advance the story's dramatic value rather than just charge up kids' adrenaline levels.
The stage show features about 20 masters of karate, tae kwon do, kung fu and other martial arts and was choreographed by ninth-degree black belt master Pat Johnson, stunt coordinator for the "Mortal Kombat" film and karate master for all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.
"The film showed that martial arts and special effects could be satisfying to kids and still be just fine with their parents," said Kasanoff, who confesses he's "just terrible" at the Mortal Kombat video games. "And this is just a great group of characters and a great story that everyone can get into.
"When you're putting together something like this, you want to be cool enough for the kids, but you want parents to be OK with it too. If [the creators and producers] didn't look at it and say, 'Whoa, that's cool,' we didn't put it in."
The show's writer-director Jeff Lee, a musical theater veteran who staged national tours of "Cats" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," says the production's creative staff decided early on to steer away from the video game's graphic violence to emphasize the expertise of the martial artists.
"The violence just wasn't necessary for telling the story," said Lee. "I think the basic message is that to face any obstacle you have to call on your own spirit to combat it. . . . You have to combat your own mortality. If we know what we're capable of, if we have knowledge, we can draw on that and overcome anything."
Sklar, who concedes she might take her sons to the show if she felt it wasn't going to be gory, doesn't think your average 10-year-old boy is sophisticated enough to pick up much in the way of personal empowerment from all this.
"I didn't see the game making any big improvements in their self-esteem," said Sklar. "When they played, it was more like, 'Ooh! Did you see his head fly off?' "
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* What: "Mortal Kombat--Live on Stage."
* When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
* Where: The Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. (Also Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood.)
* Whereabouts: From Interstate 5 or the Orange (57) Freeway, exit at Katella Avenue and drive east. Turn left onto Douglass Road.
* Wherewithal: $9.50 to $13.50; limited VIP seating, $25. Parking is $6.
* Where to call: The Pond box office, (714) 704-2500, or Ticketmaster, (714) 740-2000.