Soul of Shaolin, the Chinese martial arts spectacular now being presented for a limited run at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, boasts some truly impressive Kung Fu fighting, but suffers from a lack of dramatic conflict.
The storyline involves a child raised by monks who learns the ways of Shaolin Kung Fu and eventually reunites with his mother (Li Lin at my performance; she shares the role with Wang Yazhi), who was forced to abandon him as an infant. The central role of Hui Guang is played by three different performers, as a boy (Wang Sen), as a teen (Dong Yingbo), and for the majority of the evening, as an adult (Yu Fei).
The arc of the show is fairly predictable, but does include one puzzling non-resolution. Towards the end of Act One, Hui Guang gets involved in an altercation with a drunkard, and is sent away from the temple to seek redemption because he is not supposed to be fighting out of anger on the temple grounds. Yet, we never quite find out how he redeems himself. Possibly, it’s through meditation, as that’s what he’s doing as the first act concludes, and the next time we see him, all appears well. Since this plot point seems to have the potential to provide some sorely needed tension and dramatic conflict, it seems particularly egregious that it’s not further developed.
The flimsy plot, however, mostly functions as a backdrop for the truly dazzling Kung Fu displays enacted by the well trained cast. The tightly choreographed routines — by director/choreographer Liu Tongbiao in collaboration with martial arts directors Jiang Dongxu and Zhu Huayin and director/stage supervisor Wang Zhenpeng — show off the performers’ abilities to good effect. The highlight is the adorable — and flexible! — routine performed by the young Wang, although many of the large group numbers are quite impressive. Some parts of the show seem physically impossible, and are likely to induce actual gasps and groans from audience members who wince in sympathy in regards to various contortionist acts and other painful looking feats.
Voiceover narration is used at key moments to help give context to the work, but the creators need to seriously reconsider the final line that’s spoken as it is likely to induce unintended laughter from the audience. The acting abilities of the cast are also not equal to their martial arts talents, with exaggerated facial expressions and miming often utilized to convey what’s going on. In addition, the performance borrows a trick or two from Beijing Opera, particularly Li’s use of a water sleeve to demonstrate her character’s anguish during a battle sequence and its aftermath.
The music, composed by Zhou Chenglong, provides a soothing soundscape for the majority of the show, and frequently crescendos in order to highlight a particular martial arts action. However, it’s less successful in conveying the emotional tenor of the piece, and one moment involving the mother discovering her son is missing features a high pitched operatic note that comes across as overly melodramatic.
For all its flaws, the work, which is the inaugural offering of China on Broadway, a producing partnership of Nederlander Worldwide Productions and the Eastern Shanghai Cultural Film and Television Group, is a cut above some of the recent martial arts spectacles that have been seen in New York.