There's no business like snow business, especially around the holidays. After a flurry of "Nutcrackers," Radio City, "Wintuk" and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," "Slava's Snowshow" drifted into the Helen Hayes last night - about 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent precipitation.
You may have seen the show before. It played off-Broadway a few years back, filling the Union Square Theater with fake snow, real smoke and a barrage of balls and balloons the ragtag troupe of clowns lofted into the audience.
Back then, it seemed sort of charming.
Back then, it wasn't $69 to $111 a ticket - for less than 90 minutes, with an intermission. With apologies to Woody Allen - the show is irritating! And so short!
Just how much you'll enjoy it, at any price, depends on you, and your love (or not) of audience participation.
Do you like to cheer and laugh on cue? Get spritzed with water or blanketed in synthetic cobwebs? If so, go and enjoy. If not, a stiff drink (and an asthma inhaler, if you have one) may help prepare you for the wordless mayhem to come.
The star, of course, is Russia's Slava Polunin - all mad-scientist's hair, red nose and rubbery white lips, who can both shrink and expand within his shapeless yellow suit.
When we first see him, he's pulling a rope across the stage and soon winding it around his neck. Just when you're about to cover the eyes of the child beside you, another clown appears - this one in a long green smock and floppy hat that looks half-nunnery headgear, half beagle - and we're off to the races.
Pretty soon the clowns are clambering up and over seats, tousling hair, spraying water and - flashback to that Flying Karamazov Brothers bit on "Seinfeld" - hijacking jackets. At one point, they plucked a small child out of the orchestra and carried her offstage. (Either that child was a plant, or we're looking at years of psychotherapy.)
Now and then, though, there are some beautiful images - fleeting, Fellini-like scenes that are at once funny and sad.
The most memorable moments come in Act 2, when Slava pulls out an overcoat, hangs it on a rack and brings it to life - all with one arm. It's touching and brilliant, and you wish there was more of that, but there's not.
Instead, we get loud, throbbing music - everything from the "Chariots of Fire" theme to what sounds like a Balkans bar mitzvah band - and an avalanche of paper snow. A friend who saw the show in London is still finding flecks in her pockets.
It's only proper to report that director Victor Kramer keeps the nonsense flowing at a steady pace, and that Victor Plotkinov has designed a number of props that might have migrated from a Teletubbies show, including a background of what seems like fleecy mattresses that nicely coalesce into a blizzard.
I'm just glad I don't have to sweep up afterward.
Global warming is seriously bad news for polar bears and other arctic critters, but it’s been hell on some unendangered species too, like snow-loving New Yorkers. Having grown up in a sunny California suburb, in a family that regarded skiing as a deplorably extravagant way to acquire a broken leg, I became snow-crazed as soon as I started visiting New York in the chillier months.
The last few winters have been sadly flake-deficient, and I have sorely felt the loss. Frequent reminders that city snow quickly turns to ashen, slippery slush fall on deaf ears. The snow-mad want snow and consider a closet full of salt-corroded shoes a small price to pay.
Saturday night’s flurries were lovely but really just an amuse-bouche in meteorological terms. So my heart leapt as I entered the Helen Hayes Theater, where the delightful kiddie curio “Slava’s Snowshow” opened on Sunday night for a brief holiday run. A fine dusting of snow — well, fluffy white confetti, anyway — was already piled up in the aisles, and if the show lived up to the promise of its title, more was on the way.
The young children in the audience were already acting like fellow sufferers from snow deprivation. A girl in front of me was dispatching her pretzel nuggets from Auntie Anne’s with alarming speed so she could join in the fun. As soon as she finished, she grabbed big gobs of pseudosnow from the floor and flung them skyward with a peal of joy.
My companion, apparently not a snow lover, bristled at receiving the brunt of her fistful, but it was all I could do to keep from flinging a few myself.
“Slava’s Snowshow” was created in 1993 in Moscow by the Russian-born clown-artist Slava Polunin and has been seen in 25 countries since. It had an Off Broadway run of more than two years at the Union Square Theater, beginning in September 2004.
Despite its worldwide success the show has retained the feel of a handmade diversion, modest in its means but powerful in its ability to induce waves of giggles and sighs of pleasure. Mr. Polunin, done up in a baggy yellow suit, with a bulbous red nose and traditional black-and-white clown makeup, alternates with a couple of others in the central role. This yellow fellow is flanked by a cadre of green-coated goofs in similar makeup, with mile-wide floppy black shoes and hats with wingspans to match.
They bumble and stumble about, acting sad-clown-like, employing props like straw brooms, balloons and bubble machines. To analyze what they do would be pointless, like describing a kitten at play and expecting to transmit your pleasure at witnessing the scene.
Let’s just say if I were charged with the entertainment of children under 10 and had a Broadway budget at my disposal, this would be the show I’d favor. It does not stun children with spectacle but fires their imaginations and gives them a savory taste of the sensory pleasures of live entertainment without forcing too much unsettling clown intimacy on the adults in the audience.
Which isn’t to say you will emerge completely unmolested. The 20-minute intermission is more like recess, with some of the performers clambering across the audience and leading the more aggressive kids in snow fights and other raillery, some involving sprays of water.
Adults without children to supervise might want to know that Sardi’s, next door, makes a fine martini.
The taped musical score leaves a lot to be desired, including as it does banalities like the “Chariots of Fire” theme and the famous shrieky bits from Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” But you don’t come to “Slava’s Snowshow” for the music. You come for the snow.
And on that front it does not disappoint. By the full-on blizzard finale, snow was general all over the Helen Hayes Theater. It was falling on every part of the dark central section, on the balcony, falling softly upon the first rows. It lay thickly drifted on the aisles and on the floor, on the delighted faces of the littlest children, on the coat-covered laps of their parents. My soul swooned slowly as I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe of the Helen Hayes, and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and — well, the jaded theater critics too.
Please excuse that strange peroration. In my snow frenzy I seem to have purloined a few lines from James Joyce — the immortal culminating paragraph of “The Dead.” But something tells me Joyce wouldn’t mind. Judging from those gorgeous last lines, I suspect he was an inveterate snow lover himself.
It's amazing how an infusion of cash can transform a show. "Slava's Snowshow," an offbeat, otherworldly clown show created by master Russian clown Slava Polunin, has cleaned up its endearingly scruffy face since its 2004 Off Broadway engagement. Comfortably installed (until Jan. 4) in that most accommodating of intimate Broadway houses, the Helen Hayes, the refurbished show boasts fresher set pieces, sharper lighting, cleaner costumes, better beach balls, more "snow" -- even more clowns. And if one should whisper that some of the magic has evaporated, who would hear that voice above the screams of laughter of a delighted audience?
New management's smartest investment was a bigger, better wind machine. This big boy blasts prodigious quantities of "snowflakes" (cut-up pieces of tissue-thin paper) into the audience, which is already happily disoriented by the wall of "snow" (vertical flats covered in cotton-batting) they see closing in on them from the stage.
If they should survive the roaring white-out blizzard that is the climactic moment of this magical show, there's even more in store: giant colored plastic balls (the blue one as big as a baby hippo) launched from the stage and into the house, where willing hands eagerly punch them aloft -- into the balcony, if you're good at this.
That's not the end of audience involvement in this crowd-pleasing holiday show. At one point, eight red-nosed clowns in identical outlandish outfits (lime green coats down to their 2-foot-long clown shoes and the floppiest of floppy hats) pile into the orchestra and start walking over the seat backs, while spritzing water and otherwise clowning around.
(At one preview, a small woman and a little boy were plucked right out of the audience and carried offstage -- the small woman upside-down. Why these two, out of so many, should be so lucky is a mystery.)
But for all the fun of dodging giant beachballs and pelting your neighbor with tissue paper snowflakes, something more is going on in this show, which Slava used to take into remote parts of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. Something that has to do with the eternal power of laughter and the sheer endurance of the Everyman clown.
To be sure, some of that existential humanism survives in this new, spiffed-up version of "Slava's Snowshow," often in quiet moments. Like the endearing old routine in which a lonely clown (the great Slava himself, in the signature yellow clown suit that makes him look like a big chicken) cuddles up to an empty coat hanging on a coatrack. Or the metaphysical moment of an angry clown contemplating his role on a silently spinning planet.
While the proliferation of adjunct clowns certainly adds to the silliness -- at which the tall and gawky Spencer Chandler excels -- Slava's original role as the scary clown master of an indifferent, even sinister universe is also diminished. Gone, too, is the heartbreaking quality of a woebegone troupe of social outcasts struggling to survive in the eternal snowstorm of a hostile world. And that loss is not something to laugh at.