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Emperor's tale is too great a leap

`Terracotta Warriors' has lots of flips and martial arts but not much character development.

January 27, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Billed as an "action musical," Dennis K. Law's "Terracotta Warriors" uses an eclectic original score by Hao Wei Ya, along with gymnastics, martial arts and several kinds of dance to tell the story of the tyrant who unified China, became its first emperor, built the Great Wall and left an enormous pottery army to serve him in the afterlife.

With its spectacular painted backdrops, ornate period costumes and hordes of accomplished performers, this Chinese-Canadian production came to the Kodak Theatre on Thursday, explaining its overlapping story lines with crimson subtitles (English and Chinese), but never really bringing its central character to life.

Like Shakespeare's Macbeth, Emperor Qin ShiHuang is heroic, haunted, murderous and self-questioning, but writer-director Law seldom makes him the story's natural force-field, the unmistakable author of the historical events and achievements attributed to him. Instead, he's continually acted upon -- passive dramatically -- and becomes truly dominant only during the domestic scenes involving his conflicted concubine, Meng Ying.

This problem makes too much of "Terracotta Warriors" play like a historical pageant rather than propulsive movement theater, and its credibility is continually undercut by an emphasis on gymnastic stunts. No action is so serious, no emotion so overpowering that it cannot be ornamented with a body-flip. Even the ghost of Confucius shows off with a split leap.

There are 23 scenes, and in most of them the group dances and martial arts displays remain far too brief and undeveloped. We see something beautiful or exciting, but it's yanked away. Only after the story is told, and Qin is finally humbled in death, does a sustained, satisfying confirmation of company prowess take place -- in the curtain calls.

Four choreographers get program credit, so it's not surprising to find classical ballet steps added to a traditional Chinese sleeve dance or two 6-year-old prodigies suddenly upstaging the entire corps in what should be super-serious war maneuvers.

The orchestral and choral forces are recorded, but live drumming and an omnipresent soprano (Ji Xiaoqi on Thursday) bring immediacy to the score, which incorporates elements as varied as ancient Chinese wind instruments and Western-style opera arias. The most impressive passages come in percussion-driven training or battle scenes while the symphonic sections often sound bloated and derivative.

The cast is flawless, but principals alternate throughout the run and nobody tells you who you're seeing. On Thursday, Sun Wenlong brought lean, edgy intensity to Qin, effectively dispatching the technical challenges of his duets with Meng Ying (not to mention effortlessly kicking away the impossibly long trains on his imperial robes earlier). A little less scenery-chewing madness might have been welcome, but the flaws in the role seemed less interpretive than conceptual.

Zhao Shan's acting helped unify the disjointed movement components in the role of Meng Ying and gave the production an emotional core. Tian Ye also commanded attention as the flamboyant palace eunuch, a character used, belatedly, to express the spirit of rebellion but who mostly functions as bizarre comic relief.

Other major roles were assumed by Liu Nanxi, Li Xing, Chen Li and Guo Hui, though they appeared less frequently than the tireless cadres of court dancers, soldiers and martial arts specialists who not only wore ancient robes and wigs as if born in them but delivered state-of-the-art technique to whatever idiom was assigned them.

But Law and his company leave a major opportunity unexplored. In more than one country right now, arrogant and reckless leaders are destroying human rights and lives in the name of national unity or manifest destiny -- so "Terracotta Warriors" ought to have more relevance, ought to serve as a warning from 225 BC of what happens when the wrong regime seizes too much power. And that may be its greatest failing: staying obsessed with picturesque specifics when there are great lessons to teach about naked ambition, the futility of conquest and a tyrant's inevitable legacy of pain.


`Terracotta Warriors'

Where: Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 2 and 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $17.50 to $57.50

Contact: (213) 480-3232,

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