PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Soul of Shaolin — Where There's Smoke

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Soul of Shaolin — Where There's Smoke
On Jan. 15 — which Mayor Mike Bloomberg officially proclaimed "China on Broadway Day" — the curtain at the Marriott Marquis rose on Soul of Shaolin, and out rolled in one great billowing sheet after another the mist of antiquity and tradition.
Soul of Shaolin's Zhang Zhigang, Yu Fei, Li Lin and Yang Wei
Soul of Shaolin's Zhang Zhigang, Yu Fei, Li Lin and Yang Wei Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Eventually, human-sized action figures became visible amid the thick fog, bouncing about the stage meaningfully and manfully like grasshoppers-on-steroids, wielding poles with time-honored authority. Mysteriously, the house lights remained on when the troupe took the stage — and stayed on until the mist finally subsided.

"Do you want the story, the reason?" general manager Don Frantz asked during the opening-night party at — tradition! — Sardi's. "Some of it is cultural," he began loftily. "The show lives a little bit more than a Broadway show does. It's called by one man, kind of in the spirit of everything." [He didn't name names, but presumably the mad genius in control was Liu Tongbiao, the show's credited director-choreographer.]

"If you tell commercial artists, 'Do this. Do that. Do more.' — they will do it. He called for more smoke and more smoke and more smoke. We did more smoke on opening night than we ever did because we got excited. The smoke was on in the adrenalin rush of opening night. A new fire-alarm system was installed before White Christmas, and it's more sensitive than usual. The alarm triggered the house lights to come on. If it had happened with the old system, the sprinklers would've gone on."

The first-night crowd was not only mercifully dry but pretty much star-free. However, as befits an historic occasion like the People's Republic of China's first sighting on Broadway, the evening was steeped in cultural dignitaries: George Hu, the Governor's Office Asian Community Affairs Liaison; Commissioner Marjorie B. Tiven of the United Nations Consular Corps and Protocol; Mrs. Asha Rose Metengenti Migiro and Mr. Sha Zukang, both Deputy Secretary-Generals of the United Nations; Ambassador Zhang Yesui, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations; Minister Liu Hanming, of the United Nations Chinese Mission; Zhai Deyu, Consul and Director of the New York Chinese Consulate Cultural Office, and Peng Keyu, the New York Chinese Consulate Consul General.

There was also a large nest of Nederlanders in attendance in a plain and partisan show of support for this first joint venture of Nederlander Worldwide Productions, LLC and Eastern Shanghai International Culture Film and Television Group. "This is part of a much larger project that we are involved with," said its initiator, Robert Nederlander Jr. "We have been bringing 'The Best of Broadway' to China for a couple of years now. We toured Aida and 42nd Street through nine cities across China. Also, we're helping them manage several theatres, and, as a part of that, we ran across some great talent, and we're helping them to develop it. Our focus is not to restage American shows and then bring them here. We're looking to the original Chinese work and working with creative Chinese talent, finding Chinese shows that work for that market and work for Broadway as well. We hope to develop an audience — not just a traditional theatre audience — but families who may want to bring their young kids to see great action. And, of course, theirs is the Asian community here in New York. It'll really be a broad audience base, we believe."

[flipbook] Soul of Shaolin is Step One in that direction and timed deliberately to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Jan. 26, the Year of the Ox. Step Two, he said, should be arriving a year from now. "Part of the impetus for bringing these shows in in January is to coincide with the Chinese New York." The next opus has yet to be determined.

The Shaolin Temple Wushu Martial Artists — some 33 strong and all, of course, marking their Broadway debuts — performed the piece. It may well be the first Broadway show to tell its whole story in marital arts set-pieces. Four or five times, a narrator is heard, helping a Western audience over a plot point that otherwise would be lost in translation, but, for the most part, the show is hammer-hard and action-driven, with a jaw-dropping display of synchronized athletic skills and feats.

Set in a time of ancient turmoil, Soul of Shaolin tells of Hui Guang, who is separated from his mother as an infant and is raised by monks in the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province (where, incidentally, the entire cast has put in many long hours of training that couples the action of Kung Fu and the inaction of Buddhist meditation).

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Under the tutelage of his one-armed mentor, Hui Guang becomes a master of Shaolin Kung Fu, a type of martial arts that emphasizes the physical as well as the spiritual — and was featured in the films, "Shaolin Soccer" and Jet Li's "Fearless"). But marital arts is no match for a mother's love, and, when the two are reunited after years of separation, battle lines are drawn. Tradition dictates that Hui Guang fight his way out of the temple and into his mother's arms, taking on the whole Kung Fu-fighting academy as well as his beloved teacher. If you have tears to shed…

Three different actors are used to play Hui Guang (boy, teen and man), and two to play his mother — the only two women on stage. When Li Lin was asked what it felt like to be on stage with all that testosterone, the reply was "I feel so hurt," meaning she's usually on the receiving end of a lot of brutish manhandling.

Only 22, she admitted she did attempt a little aging in the course of the play: "I put in some white in my hair and make a little wiggle on my face." She meant "wrinkle," but she was the only cast member game enough to attempt to answer in English.

The 24-year-old Zhang Zhigang, who plays Hui Guang's one-armed master, really does have one arm, making his astonishing proficiency at martial arts all the more amazing. "You have to go beyond yourself," he offered by way of an explanation.

Yu Fei, the dominant and dominating Hui Guang of the evening, rather casually confessed to working out six hours every day. [Is that over-rehearsing or what?] But the physical demands weren't his driving concern: "Acting is, actually, the most challenging part. Monks study the practice and control of the martial arts. Now I have to act on stage in a theatrical production — that's the most difficult part for me." He displayed a certain amount of social bravery at the party by drinking red wine in a spiffy, Mandarin-collar outfit that resembled Navy whites. It was the uniform of the whole company, and all come with matching (and useful) red windbreakers.

The youngest Hui Guang is nine-year-old Wang Seng, who has already spent more than half his life (five years!) temple-trained in the marital arts. It shows. His head-spinning and body-flips proved to be a constant crowd-pleaser. He did admit to accidents on stage but preferred not to go into them, prompting his dad to step up to the plate and recall how the boy once, in a ferocious effort, ripped his pants on stage.

Broadway's own Asian superstar, the twice-Tonyed and much-respected costume designer Willa Kim, was at the opening and glad to be there, thank you very much.

"I thought the costumes were sweet, simplistic and functional," Kim decreed warmly. She's a native of Los Angeles, "but you can say my parents are from Korea."

The cast of <I>Soul of Shaolin</I> at curtain call
The cast of Soul of Shaolin at curtain call
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