"Soul of Shaolin" mixes sentiment and strength

By Michael Kuchwara
Assocaited Press 01-15-2009

NEW YORK: It's sort of Bruce Lee - with more noble aspirations.

"Soul of Shaolin," a Kung Fu spectacular, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, is a striking mixture of sentiment and strength, a soap-tinged, martial-arts tale of a devoted mother and her virtue-seeking son.

The show uses a particular kind of Chinese physical prowess called Shaolin Kung Fu, practiced in the province of Henan by the monks of the Shaolin temple. This movement is the centerpiece of the production, the first from the People's Republic of China to appear on Broadway.

"Soul of Shaolin" tells the story of Hui Guang, raised by the monks after the child is separated from his mother during a time of war. There is a fierce physicality to his adventures, a journey that allows Hui Guang to grow to manhood, face challenges and eventually be reunited with his mother. Is there any other kind of ending for a strict morality tale such as this?

And the youth's extended journey makes for complicated displays of Kung Fu, an acrobatic display of movement that often involves swords, whips, poles and the most astonishing contortions of the human body.

The suppleness of the cast is amazing - starting with young Wang Sen who portrays our hero as a boy - and who is followed by two more performers, Dong Yingbo and Yu Fei, playing older versions of the lad. Try putting your foot behind your ear as agile little Wang Sen does with lightning ease.

One of the best moments in the show - it is divided rigidly into six separate scenes - occurs as the monks demonstrate what they do with Kung Fu in daily life. Watch what they with a series of yellow bowls.

The violence in "Soul of Shaolin" is stylized, of course, and almost balletic in nature. And the villains are obviously bad. For example, at one point, Hui Guang's mother, portrayed by the lovely Li Lin, is threatened by a brigand sporting a scary mustache. And others wear their menace with equally broad strokes.

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.

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