'Identity'

The kid-friendly colors and superhuman contortions of "The New Shanghai Circus" would seem to make the troupe's latest show the perfect antidote to high-voltage cartoons and videogames.

The kid-friendly colors and superhuman contortions of “The New Shanghai Circus” would seem to make the troupe’s latest show the perfect antidote to high-voltage cartoons and videogames. A house full of critical youngsters bears that thesis out, but only in part — many of the acts are well within the coolness tolerance for the young target aud at the New Victory Theater, but some of the more balletic stunts drop dangerously below minimum levels of awesomeness.

You have to jump through plenty of hoops if you want to please kids, but if there’s a crew up to that task, it should be this gymnastic 15-member troupe. During the act that got the most youthful attention Saturday, three of the men — who changed into baggy street clothes for the segment — took progressively more impressive leaps through higher and higher rings, coordinating their somersaults, spins and backflips to an upbeat score.

That’s about as hip as things got, though. The lingering problem with the production is that, however worthy the material is, this isn’t really the venue to best show off all of it. Plate-spinning is hard, but it doesn’t look that impressive to a 9-year-old if the performers just enter spinning the plates, no matter how many plates there are. Holding yourself up with your teeth, too, is evidently quite difficult, but it’s a little, well, subtle in its context here.

“The New Shanghai Circus” can be a blast, but much of it works best if you come prepared to see ballet vignettes with handstands. Then you’re set to be impressed when a young performer twists himself into ever-stranger shapes and begins to spin on one hand with only a cloth to cut the friction. Beautiful, and a little impossible, seems to be the name of the grownup-friendly games.

There are enough oases of roller-skating and kung fu to see most kids through the proceedings. However much parents may cringe when their offspring thrill to the sight of a man breaking a metal rod over his head (“Billy, please don’t try that”), those were the moments with which children in the audience seemed uniformly taken.

The trade-off, of course, is that they are the least enthralling acts for those of us who like the quasi-dance sections. “The New Shanghai Circus” feels like twin shows, though opinions as to which is the evil twin will be divided along generational lines. Ultimately, it’s both a good compromise between two conflicting impulses, and a lesser show than either one might have yielded alone.

The New Shanghai Circus

The New Victory Theater; 499 seats; $50 top

Production

A New Victory Theater presentation of a circus in two acts. Art direction by Xu Ying; lighting and production stage manager, Chris Dunlop. Opened Nov. 30, 2007. Reviewed Dec. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

With: Ma Aili, Li Rong, Wang Pandi, Liu Yang, Song Yubin, Song Ying, Liu Yang, Zhai Yanan, Zhai Junnan, Lu Wei, Bai Yang, Li Jiqing, Zhou Guan Wang Xinyi, Cai Yong.
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