Who says nothing new ever happens on Broadway? We are merely days into the new year and I have a fresh sensation to report. The other evening at the Marquis Theater I sat squirming in my seat, possessed by anxiety that I might at any moment be hit by a flying monk.
I don’t mean to suggest that the kung fu masters in “Soul of Shaolin,” the Chinese martial-arts pageant that opened there Thursday night, are anything less than precise in their airborne gymnastics and kicks and thrusts. But as they fling their jabbing limbs around the stage, emitting menacing guttural shrieks and grunts, they achieve such velocity and altitude that a viewer could be forgiven for wanting to duck.
As cultural propaganda, “Soul of Shaolin,” which was performed during the recent Olympics as part of the Beijing arts festival, has a tough act to follow in the opening ceremonies of those games. I was as dazzled as everybody else by the breathtaking spectacle orchestrated by the filmmaker Zhang Yimou.
All that massed humanity moving in unison was a majestic sight, as long as you could put aside the fear that if a nervous flag-waver waved in the wrong direction at the wrong millisecond, a whole family might be banished to a distant province. The artistry and scale of the enterprise were breathtaking, like a series of moving Christo sculptures made of human flesh. All that, and Sarah Brightman warbling away on top of a giant globe, too.
“Soul of Shaolin” is obviously a far more modest piece of pageantry. It features 30 Chinese performers trained in Shaolin kung fu, a style originating at the Shaolin temple in Henan Province. They enact a very simple story about a baby torn from his mother’s arms during civil conflict and raised by the temple monks in the arts of kung fu.
Mostly the show is a series of collective or individual displays of rhythmic acrobatics and crisply choreographed combat. Although the program states that achieving inner peace is part of the Shaolin discipline, the monks depicted onstage at the Marquis don’t seem to spend much time in contemplation, unless it is contemplating one of their brethren spinning across the floor on his head or being hoisted in the air on the tips of spears.
The three performers who play the main character, Hui Guang, impress with their contortionist feats and physical prowess. The littlest, Wang Sen, naturally gets the zestiest oohs, aahs and aaws with his grim little scowl and the back flips onto his shaved head. The splashy all-monks-on-deck numbers combine the pop of a Broadway dance routine with the testosteroney thrill of Hong Kong action movies.
But “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. The passages of more relaxed indigenous music come as a big relief.
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. And they have plenty of contortionists, too. Watching someone fling his leg behind his head as if merely scratching an elbow is not the wince-inspiring feat it once was, thanks to those enterprising French Canadians and their hordes of international performers. (I suspect even Madonna can perform that trick these days.)
“Soul of Shaolin” is being presented on Broadway by Nederlander Worldwide Productions, a joint venture between the producer Robert Nederlander Jr. and Chinese partners. It is produced by China on Broadway, “established by Nederlander Worldwide to bring the best of Chinese culture to Broadway.”
I seriously doubt “Soul of Shaolin” represents the best of Chinese culture. Then again, the shows Nederlander Worldwide is bringing to China include the musicals “Aida,” “42nd Street” and “Fame” — hardly the best of American culture, either. All things considered I’d much rather see “Soul of Shaolin” again than “Aida.” And I’d happily be hoisted aloft on metal spears rather than endure once more the wretched “Fame.” But maybe it’s better in Mandarin?