New York theater: Not just for tourists


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Live theater!  It’s one of the oldest art forms in history barring some cave dude entertaining the rest of the tribe by scratching pictures on a wall.  There’s little argument that New York City is the theatrical center of the world.

Other cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston—all have live theater, but none can come close to equaling that of Broadway and environs.  Perhaps the city that comes closest is London and its fabulous West End district.

The variety of live shows in New York encompasses the entire gamut of the art form. The diversity is exemplified by two shows that have graced the city.  One, Shen Yun brings the classic grace of Chinese theater and dance while Bronx Bombers gives audiences an eye into modern sports.

Shen Yun is a marvel of grace, talent and Chinese dance by a troupe of extremely talented musicians and dancers.  The female performers glide across the stage so seamlessly and smoothly it appeared as though they could be carrying a bowl of water on their heads without spilling a drop.

The raked stage was one of the more minimalist when it comes to props, but the audience barely noticed with the spectacular backdrop offering amazing graphics.  A screen covering floor to ceiling and as wide as the stage brought to life scenes of ancient China.  Figures could be seen flying across the sky and then dipping below stage level only to suddenly appear, live, on stage.

This mixture of live performers and special effects was handled so smoothly that it appeared as though the dancers were actually flying across the screen.

While China’s history and culture are celebrated, the current Communist regime is not spared the disdain of Shen Yun.  The government is referred to as “…atheist,” and the pogroms against the Falun Gong sect is hammered home.  The point is made, perhaps a bit too strongly, that what you are seeing in New York could never be staged in China under the totalitarian rule.  Perhaps a bit too strongly.

These classical Chinese dances have been handed down over more than five millennia.  Much like Japanese Kabuki, classical Chinese dance and theater has its own set of training methods for both physical expression and specific postures.  The big difference here is that while Kabuki offers exquisite costumes, as does Shen Yun, an audience could fall asleep minutes into the performance while Shen Yun holds interest from curtain to curtain.

Each of the 20 sets performed at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater brought its own excitement to the theater.  From the “Grand Descent of the Deities,” to the Tang Imperial Drummers, Shen Yun held the audience in its grip and had them waiting for more.  www.ShenYunPerformingArts.org.

Bronx Bombers, at the Circle in the Square Theater on West 50th Street, is step thousands of years from the past of Shen Yun to the present of the New York Yankees baseball team.

Theater in the round is always a gamble when it comes to staging, but Bronx Bombers pulls it off with aplomb, changing scenery flawlessly.  The main character, Yogi Berra, played convincingly by Peter Scolari, has the former Yankee catcher down to a “T.”  His mannerism and personality come through and the iconic ex-ball player is never mocked as could easily have been the outcome.  Yogi’s wife, Carmen, is convincingly played by Scolari’s real-life wife, Tracy Shayne, with the feeling that she would have for her husband in such a volatile environment as the George Steinbrenner–era when the Yanks were referred to as “The Bronx Zoo.”

The story jumped around a bit from the sparks that flew between manager Billy Martin, himself a firebrand, and Reggie Jackson, one of the finest ball players in history with an ego the size of the stadium.  The infamous dugout fight between Martin and Jackson is the crux of much of the show although it is never seen.  But the animosity between the two permeates the theater.

In a fantasy scene Yogi has a dream reminiscent of the movie “Field of Dreams” where he has dinner with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard, Derek Jeter, Martin and Jackson.  Tempers flare, but in the end it all works out…perhaps a bit of a dream sequence in itself taking the real characters into consideration.

Shen Yun is on the road until next year, but Bronx Bombers is still alive and kicking.  Check it out before spring training.