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July 30, 2014

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A Strip production starring a panda isn’t too much to bear

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Christopher DeVargas

A first look at Las Vegas’ newest resident show “Panda!” during a rehearsal preview Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, at Palazzo.

‘Panda!’ Preview

A first look at Las Vegas’ newest resident show “Panda!” during a rehearsal preview Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, at Palazzo. Launch slideshow »

Sneak Peek at ‘Panda!’

A sneak peek at Launch slideshow »

As the costumed acrobats tumble across the stage, cracking one another with bamboo poles while leaping and spinning about, you can’t help but wonder: Whither the panda?

And not a moment too soon, the panda does appear, jumping and kicking with evident delight and wielding his own wooden weaponry.

This is the sense of expectation from “Panda!,” which opened this week at Palazzo Showroom (tickets are $48 to $128, available at the Venetian or Palazzo websites, by calling 702-414-9000, or by clicking here). The show invites yet another comparison to a Cirque production, which is the case of any performance in Las Vegas that employs acrobats bounding and soaring across a big stage.

But “Panda!” is a Cirque show as viewed through an Asian prism. Even after watching a single scene performed last week as a sample of the show, it’s pretty evident what to expect from this new, open-ended production in the former “Jersey Boys” theater.

Essentially, upon an admittedly limited look at the show, “Panda!” looks and feels something like “Ka.” The stage is laden with performers donning beautiful, traditional Chinese costumes and cavorting across a dazzlingly colorized, multilayered set. The artists, including a 7-year-old boy whose acrobatic skills are truly Olympian, are athletically precise and nimble and the equal of any performers of their type on the Strip. The show is for ages 5 and older, as kids in particular adore pandas.

There is a story in “Panda!”, too, which is likely to remind of the vague manner in which Cirque shows profess to tell a story. But after “Panda!,” don’t expect to be talking about the finer nuances of the plot.

It’s really all about the panda.

“We have more than 50 panda costumes, and every male character will be in the costume and be the panda,” costume designer Li Song said, through an interpreter, after last week’s preview. “Eventually, every male character will be in the costume and be the panda.”

We’re told that the panda will show several facial expressions (even, we hope, abject angst) using an entirely different costume for each. Those garments were made in China and don’t leave the property, as their cleaning and maintenance is performed only at Palazzo.

The main, or if you will, "captain" panda is Long Long. There are other pandas in play, with some scenes featuring many dancing pandas. Yes, panda-monium might ensue, and I'm sorry but I could not resist.

The production team is headed by An Zhao, typically described as “acclaimed,” with great justification. He and the team directed the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, one of the greatest performance spectacles in history. The performers were pulled from the China National Acrobatic troupe and the Shaolin Monastery Kung Fu Monks Troupe, representing the best acrobats and martial artists the country has produced.

Thus, “Panda!” is not a small operation by any measure. The use of LED panels, which give the stage its deceptive depth and size, is extensive. The show took six months to assemble, with Zhao working his entire crew long hours each day and focusing on the show’s design. The reasoning: All that physical prowess and dexterity is lost if the stage looks cheap.

Zhao is swift to draw a distinction between his show and all the other productions that showcase acrobatics on the Strip.

“Our ‘Panda!’ show is the first authentic Chinese show to take up residency in Las Vegas,” Zhao said, also through an interpreter. “We want to express the great Chinese culture to everyone. For us, that is the most difficult part. We hope everyone will like it.”

Even if the message falls short, and audiences don’t buy into the great staging and the dozens of performers in traditional garb racing around the stage, the show has a not-so-secret weapon: the panda. And really, who among us doesn’t love a panda?

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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