Panda! Is Long on Fantasy, Short on Substance

Palazzo's new resident show has Far East flair but ultimately is just another pretty, live-action dream

PANDA-Show-Image-4What beauty, skill, talent, artistry, athleticism, cultural uniqueness and … is it the finale yet?

Such thoughts can haunt a critic. Familiarity with the Cirque-pioneered genre of fantasy dreamscapes doesn’t necessarily breed contempt. Jadedness, however, can settle deep into the bones.

Watching the Palazzo’s new resident show, the non-Cirque, direct-from-China Panda!, is like gazing at a beautiful aquarium—a scrolling tableau of gorgeous images. You could stare at it for 10 minutes straight. Even 15. But 90?

Panda! is an exotic, wordless swirl of martial arts, dance and acrobatics from director An Zhao, whose team also was responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Visually stunning, Panda! is, like Cirque productions, a series of fantastical set pieces loosely linked to a simple story, this one of Chinese folklore: LongLong, the cuddly, titular creature (a costumed performer), embarks on a quest to rescue his lady, a.k.a. the peacock princess, from a demon vulture and its evil minions.

Along the way, LongLong encounters the flawless leaps, tumbles and spins of the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe, the kung-fu kicks and thrusts of the gold body-painted Shaolin Monks Monastery Troupe (including one astoundingly limber 7-year-old) and the graceful choreography of the China Star Dance Troupe.

Demons descend over the audience. LongLong flops around adorably onstage for a few giggles before gaining his martial arts skills from a master of the art. Costumed supporting pandas prance up and down the aisles. Giant balloon panda heads are bounced into the audience and batted around. Demons are vanquished. Panda and princess reunite.

Highlighting the staging are lush projections against a multilayered LED wall and movable panels that make LongLong’s travels up mountains and glaciers seem like 3-D action scenes, and lend the entire production a multidimensional look.

Panda! is a sumptuous contradiction. Ironically, for all its exceptional movements and intricate artistry, it is strangely static. No performer inside that panda suit, no matter how many basic expressions one can manage, can connect with an audience on more than a superficial level. And while its central conceit of using Chinese disciplines separate it from competing Strip shows, it is, finally, merely another fantasy stroll through a dream world.

Perhaps a marketing campaign for Vegas entertainment should paraphrase Shakespeare: “To sleep, perchance to see Kà, La Rêve, Mystère, O, Panda! …”

We seem to cling to childlike fantasy as entertainment more than ever, especially in Las Vegas. Any sociologist with free time might look into that.

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: On a sad note, longtime Riviera hypnotist Dr. Scott Lewis died January 11 in Sydney, after a fall in an apartment complex. Published reports said his body was found on a fourth-floor balcony. An investigation is underway. Lewis was in Australia performing with the magic troupe The Illusionists 2.0, for which promotional material billed Lewis as host of “the longest-running hypnosis show in Las Vegas history.”

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