Like a swift kick to the head, “Soul of Shaolin” is a rushed, expertly trained assault that leaves you slightly confused afterward. Battered audiences will be able to discern enough continuity to get the kidnapped-child-becoming-a-warrior plot straight, but the Chinese government’s first attack on Broadway is a little weak on storytelling and variety. Some of the stunts are amazing, but with a proscenium as high as the Marquis’, spoiled Gothamite martial arts fans will likely be disappointed by a dearth of the aerial feats that, er, punched up better (and much cheaper) Korean actioners “Jump” and “Break Out.”
Still, those of us who can’t throw a needle through a pane of glass will happily gawk at the crazier displays of agility in “Shaolin.” In addition to the needle routine, there’s a neat-looking whip-cracking demonstration, a guy who can stand on his head and run around himself, and one comedy interlude that involves an excellent, full-body impression of a frog.
In fact, if there’s one thing “Soul of Shaolin” could have used a lot more of, it’s comedy. For Americans, the tension between family and duty to the Shaolin temple is hard to divine until it’s literally announced to the audience at the very end of the performance.
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, rather than becoming lost in a sea of disciplined bodies in identical motion (a frequent difficulty).
In the show’s second act, it becomes apparent that “Soul of Shaolin,” fresh from the 2008 Olympics, moved into its brief Broadway engagement at the Marquis (through Jan. 31) with relatively short notice. The hypnotic synchronization of the first act returns only in fits and starts, and more 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.
The set is pretty, the costumes are nice and colorful, Yu Fei is impressive as our hero Hui Guang, and Li Lin does a fine job as his mother (though one wonders why she’s not wearing age makeup when three actors of different ages play her maturing son). At the end of the day, however, you can get more precision from the Rockettes and you can get smarter Chinese action-comedy from a Stephen Chow movie. “Soul of Shaolin” isn’t a failure, exactly, but it doesn’t hit its target often enough to be a success, either.