Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu
You’ve heard the story before: Jaded RN&R theater reporter goes to high-budget casino show expecting her intelligence to be insulted by mass-appeal fluff written for slot-machine-feeding tourists. Jaded reporter comes back and says, “Wow, that was fun!”
You’ve heard this story before, too: Shy young boy leaves his mom, commits to a life of discipline and trains to be a kung fu fighter. Along the way, our hero, Chun Yi, (Xiao Bo) must resist temptations (mostly in the form of attractive women) and fight like a man. He passes arduous trials, becomes a wise leader, and is revered by all.
OK, now that all that plot and character development stuff is out of the way, the real reason go to the Eldorado showroom to see Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu is the action. The acting is overwrought, and the characters never transcend the bare-minimum requirements of their archetypes—but whatever. The rip-roaring hour and a half of choreographically polished kicking, spinning, yelling on cue, dancing and fighting by a troupe of young, athletic Chinese men with shaved heads doesn’t leave the theatergoer analyzing plot holes or aching to know what Chun Yi ate for breakfast. It’s not that kind of theater.
The Legend of Kung Fu is like a really good cartoon. It’s colorful, kinetic and has a constant string of surprises up its sleeve. It demands nothing from the audience in the way of intellectual focus. (You get more than you put into it—just like those casinos are always promising in the billboard ads.)
Even though it’s cartoon-like, the show uses the immediacy of theater to full effect. The cast of 54 paint the air with hyper-animated motion. A large hole in the front of the stage allows performers to appear and disappear using a range of delightfully gimmicky techniques.
The constant stream of surprises provides a layer of endearingly goofy, aggressively slapstick humor. After the first few bursts of where-did-that-come-from giggling, I got a kick out the sustained level of anticipation, as I waited for the next feat of acrobatic skill or act of grace. The delirious energy of the dancing is heightened by loud music that sounds like it’s straight from a Hollywood kung fu movie and a set that entirely changes its look every time the lights are off for a few seconds. The pace of costume changes is frenetic.
When the plot thickened (or thinned) into an exhibition of audacious warriors breaking solid objects over various body parts, I found it a little much. But the bursts of applause from the audience rendered my opinion on the matter outvoted by a landslide. In any case, the cast includes two women whose brief ballet and modern dance numbers provide elegant diffusions of the tough-guy stuff just long enough for anyone who may need to catch their breath to do so.
Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu is an internationally traveling show that originated at the Beijing Red Theatre China with the goal of showing the world the vitality of 21st century China. Much like Japanese animé, this kind of performing may well end up seizing the world’s imagination by combining the exotic and the universal—and by being really good fun.