The “Kung Fu Panda” of movie fame has his animated tiger and monkey allies.
But when the “Panda!” of a new stage show gets picked on, he calls in real-live Shaolin kung fu fighters; one of them only 7 years old.
The lad is “far more cuter than our senior performers. He can grab all the attention from the audience,” says An Zhao, director of the Chinese production show that debuted at the Palazzo this week.
He won’t grab it easily, based on a rehearsal display of gold-painted warriors taking acrobatic tumbles with swords, and staffs being snapped in half upon contact with bald heads.
The new show follows the hero’s journey of a panda — this one a human performer in a full-body mascot costume — trying to win back his girl, or rather, peacock princess.
Any resemblance to the animated movie series is unofficial, if perhaps not entirely unwelcome. Zhao jokes that “the panda comes from us (in China),” not from DreamWorks Animation.
The director says he had already put up a show with a panda hero and martial arts elements even before the 2008 animated hit.
“Panda!” is touted as the first Chinese show to take residency in Las Vegas. Zhao and other members of the creative team worked on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
The creators promise “the best acrobatic troupe, the best martial arts troupe and best dancing troupe” from China. “This is a special gift that we give to Vegas audiences,” the director says with a laugh.
Although “Panda!” recycles elements from other shows that Zhao and his collaborators have staged around the world, it’s the first time they’ve been combined into this story, with new production design and video created for the Palazzo by an entity known as Panda Global Entertainment.
The sketch of a story is really just to give structure and drama to a hybrid of dance, acrobatics and martial arts, performed by 47 Chinese performers.
The panda weds the peacock princess, only to have her kidnapped by a demon vulture. So he journeys to the famed Shaolin temple to seek the guidance of a martial arts master and learn kung fu.
Not unlike the Karate Kid, he is first handed a broom.
After facing temptations — including that of an evil siren — he becomes “a very strong panda, full of martial arts skills,” the director says.
The show “has the Chinese elements and it has all the (other) art forms that are accepted by everybody in the whole world. So it should be a perfect blend of East and West,” Zhao says, speaking through an interpreter.
“When Chinese people see the show they will know, yeah, it came from home,” he adds. “Any other people who see the show can easily identify it’s a show with Chinese essence, but they will be able to understand the whole show and say this is something absolutely different.”
The revue hopes to take its place amid the Cirque du Soleil titles for an open-ended run, changing its content every six months to a year based on audience response. Zhao says he has seen the competition, including Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka,” which is set in a mythic fantasy world, but incorporates Asian elements including a display of Chinese martial arts.
“The feeling from the Westerners watching our Chinese authentic show will be completely different,” he says.
However, the creators note that most Chinese food eaten by Americans isn’t the same as that consumed in China.
To make sure the show appealed to Western audiences, the producers recruited Li Hengda, who has run his own Hengda Dance Academy and performance troupe in Seattle for the past 20 years.
“You can see more art and more cultural influence in the martial arts and acrobatics,” Hengda says, explaining how Chinese classical dance for royalty gradually absorbed the kung fu of the “ordinary” people.
“A lot of the movement is very close,” he says. And those who have only seen the animated panda knocking heads on film?
They will find these real live martial arts “very graceful.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.