Friday, January 16, 2009

Did Critics Find Heart In Soul?

Did Critics Find Heart In Soul?

Last evening, Soul Of Shaolin opened at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. The kung fu spectacular is produced by Nederlander Worldwide and the Eastern Shanghai Cultural Film and Television Group as the first offering from their joint China On Broadway enterprise.

Critics' reviews ran the gamut, although there were no outright pans.

Readily admitting that he was "there to see some serious butt-kicking," it may come as no surprise that Frank Scheck of New York Post would offer the best notices with three out of four stars: "[I]t's mainly an excuse for the impressive performers ... to provide a dazzling display of their skills, many involving staffs and sabers, but mostly their masterful control of their own bodies. The athleticism on display is truly amazing, performed by everyone from small children to one particularly charismatic one-armed master.... 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."

Comparing the show to "Bruce Lee -- with more noble aspirations," the Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara offers a mostly positive review, noting the show: " 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... Subtlety is not apparent in the musical soundtrack either, an odd mixture of soupy Hollywood-style movie music -- that telegraphs emotions -- mixed with more traditional Chinese sounds. Yet it is the demanding physicality in the show that counts. That movement celebrates an intense kind of discipline that borders on the spiritual and proves to be surprisingly sturdy Broadway entertainment."

Concluding that "Soul of Shaolin ultimately seems a pretty cheap enterprise," The New York Times' Ben Brantley offers a middling to negative review: "The three performers who play the main character, Hui Guang, impress with their contortionist feats and physical prowess.... 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."

Rating the show with "Martial arts: 10. Magic: 3," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News rounds down by awarding two out of five stars: "Some kung-fu moves will make your head spin. When these performers launch into the air and whirl nearly horizontal to the ground, it's no 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' special effect. Unfortunately, cheesy sets and choppy staging choices undermine the highs. Lights and piped-in music don't seamlessly fade and bridge scenes. They slam off, like someone hitting the brakes to avoid a car crash."

Lamenting this as a "rushed, expertly trained assault that leaves you slightly confused afterward," Variety's David Rooney echoes the sentiments that this show is not ready for the Great White Way's prime time: "In the rare instances when the show communicates with utter clarity, it succeeds by speaking a universal language of one-upmanship and pratfalls. During those moments, we have to watch the individual performers to get the joke... [M]ore than once a performer has a look in his eyes that says unmistakably, 'Where am I supposed to be standing, again?' There are other amateurish mistakes, too, including notably loud backstage chatter that overpowers the piped-in score in the final moments. That would be less of a loss if the show's credo wasn't discipline, discipline, discipline."

Soul Of Shaolin runs through the end of this month at the Marquis Theatre.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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