Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soul of Shaolin


Directed and choreographed by Liu Tongbiao. Marriott Marquis. CLOSED.

A few of New York's theater scribes approached this import from the People's Republic of China--apparently the first ever to a Broadway theater, if not to adjacent souvenir stores--with the utmost intercultural respect, while others riffed on Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" and one (David Sheward of Back Stage) actually made a reference to how "hungry" the show might make us (shades of that old-as-the-hills Chinese-food trope?). Apart from a few critics who swallowed it all whole, most separated their amazement with the show's martial arts feats from their disappointment with the generic coming-of-age story and the piped-in music.

CurtainUp A
(Simon Saltzman) A visually stunning showcase...entwines a simple but impassioned story line with the visceral thrills of the martial arts as taught and practiced by the legendary Shaolin monks...Contortion, acrobatics, dance, and tumbling are generously infused into the action. However, under the direction and choreographic ingenuity of Liu Tongbiao, the pure artistry and mastery of the moves of the Shaolin Temple Wushu Martial Artists are always at the fore...I can't think of a better way to celebrate the Lunar New Year (the year of the Ox) than with this extraordinary and agile company of 30 Chinese Nationals.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) It's sort of Bruce Lee — with more noble aspirations...A striking mixture of sentiment and strength, a soap-tinged, martial-arts tale of a devoted mother and her virtue-seeking son...The suppleness of the cast is amazing — starting with young Wang Sen who portrays our hero as a boy — and who is followed by two more performers, Dong Yingbo and Yu Fei, playing older versions of the lad. Try putting your foot behind your ear as agile little Wang Sen does with lightning ease...[The] movement celebrates an intense kind of discipline that borders on the spiritual and proves to be surprisingly sturdy Broadway entertainment.

American Theatre Web A-
(Andy Propst) There's something exceedingly charming about large portions of Soul of Shaolin...The art of Shaolin Kung Fu has been seen in any number of films, on television and recently at the opening of the Beijing Summer Olympics, and it's even more impressive to see it performed live than it is on screen. And when these artists' (or more appropriately athletes'?) routines are used to tell this slight story of love and overcoming obstacles, well, it is, in a word, charming.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) This is the stage equivalent of a Jackie Chan movie mixed with a Full House marathon-- played, mercifully, for keeps...What the story lacks in suspense it makes up for in the simmering cauldron of swirling motion that are the Shaolin Temple Wushu Martial Artists who comprise the balance of the company...While I can’t say I want Main Stem theaters continuously populated with events such as this, the creativity, completeness, and coruscating kineticism of Soul of Shaolin are exactly what more “real” Broadway shows need.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) The athleticism on display is truly amazing, performed by everyone from small children to one particularly charismatic one-armed master. They do somersaults without using their hands, contort their bodies into all kinds of poses, and hang from poles outfitted with sharp blades. There's also an entertaining display of the sort of "Drunken Master" routine, complete with accompanying woozy music, popularized by Jackie Chan in several films. Director Liu Tongbiao has choreographed the proceedings with a precision that would put the Rockettes to shame. It all culminates in a final raucous battle, and the most athletic curtain calls probably ever seen on a Broadway stage.

Theatermania B
(Dan Balcazo) The flimsy plot...mostly functions as a backdrop for the truly dazzling Kung Fu displays enacted by the well trained cast. The tightly choreographed routines -- by martial arts directors Jiang Dongxu and Zhu Huayin in collaboration with director and stage supervisor Wang Zhenpeng -- show off the performers' abilities to good effect. The highlight is the adorable -- and flexible! -- routine performed by the young Wang, although many of the large group numbers are quite impressive...The acting abilities of the cast are also not equal to their martial arts talents, with exaggerated facial expressions and miming often utilized to convey what's going on.

Time Out NY B-
(Adam Feldman) The show is at its most captivating when it forgoes the story and focuses on circus-style tricks: The cast of 30 is disciplined and skilled, and it’s fun to watch them pounce and roll and bang things in sync. High art this is not. But if you’re a fan of smash-’em-up spectacle, it’s a decent way to get your kicks.

New Yorker B-
It’s hard to deny the agility of the performers, who appear to be made of granite and rubber, though their efforts are in service of a truly hokey spectacular intent on pummelling its audience into awe.

Variety C+
(Sam Thielman) The Chinese government's first attack on Broadway is a little weak on storytelling and variety. Some of the stunts are amazing, but with a proscenium as high as the Marquis', spoiled Gothamite martial arts fans will likely be disappointed by a dearth of the aerial feats that, er, punched up better (and much cheaper) Korean actioners "Jump" and "Break Out"...At the end of the day, however, you can get more precision from the Rockettes and you can get smarter Chinese action-comedy from a Stephen Chow movie.

Village Voice C
(Alexis Soloski) Perhaps China overspent on those dazzling Olympic ceremonies, but the financing for Soul of Shaolin seems unnecessarily slender. The monks perform their routines to piped-in music in front of shoddy foam-rubber scenery; even those menacing spears and swords seem made on the cheap. Of course, these details failed to trouble the audience of rapt children and their chaperones at the performance I attended, who cheered the acrobatic displays and ignored the stage deficiencies. But even they may have taken issue with the play's final maxim that "family is more powerful" than anything—even kung fu. Can family disarm three swordsmen simultaneously or break boards with its bare hands? Don't think so.

Backstage C
(David Sheward) Long on acrobatics and short on story line, Soul of Shaolin is a moderately entertaining evening on its own terms, but if your soul craves more than kicks and chops, it leaves you hungry before the final curtain. When it sticks to the impressive feats of the Shaolin Temple Wushu Martial Artists, Soul can be fun and even awe-inspiring...If the producers and director-choreographer Liu Tongbiao had presented the show as a variety or circus event, it would have scored a solid hit. But the plot is as old as kung fu itself and accompanied by cheesy music and creaky narration.

The Daily News C-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) To borrow from "A Chorus Line," "Shaolin" rates as follows - Martial arts: 10. Magic: 3...Some kung-fu moves will make your head spin...Unfortunately, cheesy sets and choppy staging choices undermine the highs. Lights and piped-in music don't seamlessly fade and bridge scenes...What to say about a monk who gets a yellow bowl to stick to his stomach as others try to pull it off? A neat Tupperware party trick. But on stage, it's just kung phooey.

New York Times C-
(Charles Isherwood) “Soul of Shaolin” ultimately seems a pretty cheap enterprise. The sets are mostly painted flats, and the music (by Zhou Chenglong) is recorded. Much of it is schlocky; for long stretches it sounds as if someone loaded up the world’s most bombastic movie soundtracks on an iPod and then pressed the shuffle button...Unfortunately for the makers of “Soul of Shaolin” (the choreography and direction are by Liu Tongbiao), the innumerable Cirque du Soleil shows have set a far higher standard in terms of stagecraft...I seriously doubt “Soul of Shaolin” represents the best of Chinese culture.

AM New York D
(Matt Windman) Can someone please explain why “Soul of Shaolin” (pronounced “SheOW LEEN”), a Chinese martial arts spectacle, is on Broadway? Wouldn’t it be better suited for an athletic arena or perhaps even a monastery?...The eye-catching skills on display include iron body techniques (i.e. breaking objects on someone’s head or abs), wall scaling, pole leaping and nerve manipulation. At our performance, all of these merited generous applause from most of the audience. But for those uninterested in action-packed spectacle, these tricks feel dull and repetitive pretty quickly. Constant blackouts and an unnecessary intermission interrupt what should have probably been a seamless display of movement.

CurtainUp A 13; Associated Press A- 12; American Theatre Web A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; New York Post B+ 11; Theatermania B 10; TONY B- 9; New Yorker B- 9; Variety C+ 8; Backstage C 7; VV C 7; The Daily News C- 6; New York Times C- 6; AM New York D 4; TOTAL: 126/14=9

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