It’s amazing how an infusion of cash can transform a show. “Slava’s Snowshow,” an offbeat, otherworldly clown show created by master Russian clown Slava Polunin, has cleaned up its endearingly scruffy face since its 2004 Off Broadway engagement. Comfortably installed (until Jan. 4) in that most accommodating of intimate Broadway houses, the Helen Hayes, the refurbished show boasts fresher set pieces, sharper lighting, cleaner costumes, better beach balls, more “snow” — even more clowns. And if one should whisper that some of the magic has evaporated, who would hear that voice above the screams of laughter of a delighted audience?
New management’s smartest investment was a bigger, better wind machine. This big boy blasts prodigious quantities of “snowflakes” (cut-up pieces of tissue-thin paper) into the audience, which is already happily disoriented by the wall of “snow” (vertical flats covered in cotton-batting) they see closing in on them from the stage.
If they should survive the roaring white-out blizzard that is the climactic moment of this magical show, there’s even more in store: giant colored plastic balls (the blue one as big as a baby hippo) launched from the stage and into the house, where willing hands eagerly punch them aloft — into the balcony, if you’re good at this.
That’s not the end of audience involvement in this crowd-pleasing holiday show. At one point, eight red-nosed clowns in identical outlandish outfits (lime green coats down to their 2-foot-long clown shoes and the floppiest of floppy hats) pile into the orchestra and start walking over the seat backs, while spritzing water and otherwise clowning around.
(At one preview, a small woman and a little boy were plucked right out of the audience and carried offstage — the small woman upside-down. Why these two, out of so many, should be so lucky is a mystery.)
But for all the fun of dodging giant beachballs and pelting your neighbor with tissue paper snowflakes, something more is going on in this show, which Slava used to take into remote parts of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. Something that has to do with the eternal power of laughter and the sheer endurance of the Everyman clown.
To be sure, some of that existential humanism survives in this new, spiffed-up version of “Slava’s Snowshow,” often in quiet moments. Like the endearing old routine in which a lonely clown (the great Slava himself, in the signature yellow clown suit that makes him look like a big chicken) cuddles up to an empty coat hanging on a coatrack. Or the metaphysical moment of an angry clown contemplating his role on a silently spinning planet.
While the proliferation of adjunct clowns certainly adds to the silliness — at which the tall and gawky Spencer Chandler excels — Slava’s original role as the scary clown master of an indifferent, even sinister universe is also diminished. Gone, too, is the heartbreaking quality of a woebegone troupe of social outcasts struggling to survive in the eternal snowstorm of a hostile world. And that loss is not something to laugh at.