Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 15, 2009
Soul of Shaolin Featuring the Shaolin Temple Wushu Martial Artists. Directed & Choreographed by Liu Tongbiao. Chief Martial Arts Director Jiao Hongbo. Director & Stage Supervisor Wang Zhenpeng. Executive Director Xue Weijun. Music Composed by Zhou Chenglong. Stage Design by Xie Tongmiao. Costume Design by Huang Gengying. Lighting Design by Song Tianjiao. Sound Design by Wu Feifei, Keith Caggiano. Martial Arts Directors Jiang Dongxu, Zhu Huayin. Make Up Design by Chen Meiping.
But add in a frantic mother who throws down and takes names - its own well-trod dramatic territory, after a fashion - and this cheesy conglomeration of kung fu tropes becomes not just tolerable but special. That final dose of oh-no-they-didn’t familiarity, the woman battling (and generally winning against) a world full of men on the edge, is that grain of filial sugar you need to help the medicine go down, in the most gleefully violent way.
Violent, of course, in that magical manner that ensures neither the performers nor the characters they’re playing get hurt. Pain isn’t the point here. The presence of the mother proves this outing is about something greater: love of life, the eternal bond of family, and - oh yes - the spiritual joy inherent in knocking heads together, whether physically (the people onstage) or metaphorically (the people in the audience). This is the stage equivalent of a Jackie Chan movie mixed with a Full House marathon - but played, mercifully, for keeps.
That’s a refreshing view in light of the other wordless, swinging spectacles that are becoming increasingly popular on stages both on Broadway and Off. If nothing else, Soul of Shaolin does indeed have the soul that many of them lack. Sure, it’s of that disconnectedly stately variety that’s simultaneously somber and satirical to Western sensibilities - is the orphan-boy-cum-kung-fu-master closer to his biological, butt-kicking mother or his scrupulously disciplined adoptive monk father? - but it comes deep from the heart and the history of a reverent society. Who invested anything other than money in Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy?
Since mom herself could instruct master classes in heel-smacking self-defense, and since family is of more than passing importance in China, the choice is perhaps not difficult to predict. But 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.
They’re every bit as talented and unflappably serious as the name implies, leaping, rolling, and brandishing daggers and halberds as though their lives lurk in the lurch. Their trials range from the sumptuous to the skin-crawling, as when Guang must take on the Monastery’s full population in an anciently proscribed exit interview, or when one of their number hangs upside down from a pole laced through a hook attached to his navel. When they charge on from offstage, assaulting each other or (as in the dazzling climax) the fourth wall, the effect is one of explosive control, big bangs written small, time and time again.
Contrasting this are the mother’s vast solo ballets of desperation and loss, plangent (if tortured) serenity within a screaming society, as well as the quietly moving relationship between Guang and his “father.” The show cares just as much about its smaller moments as it does its battle scenes, a dedication that eases the narrative weariness that strikes early and often. Directed and choreographed by Liu Tongbiao (Jiao Hongbo is the “chief martial arts director”), given elegant full-stage sets of watercolor-styled splendor by Xie Tongmiao, and costumed with crisp lusciousness and bursts of unexpected color by Huang Gengying, this is a fully conceived evening that doesn’t stop just when the flailing fists do.
Zhou Chenglong’s score (sadly, all prerecorded) is as evocative and unnecessarily portentous as is often the case in outings such as this, but it is at least inseparable from the theme. The same cannot be said of many of the recent anything-goes crop of musicals satisfied cheap thrills and cheaper gags at ever-more expensive prices. 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.