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November 27, 2014

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Review: Family-friendly ‘Panda!’ at Palazzo a showcase for kung-fu monks, acrobatics

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Opening night of “Panda!” on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Palazzo.

Opening Night of ‘Panda!’

Opening night of Launch slideshow »

For most Western audiences, “Panda!” will come off as a little weird.

It might be the opening sequence, when a herd of overly cutesy pandas laze about in a bamboo forest before one of their own gets married, or it could be moments throughout the show, as unfamiliar tropes and stock characters, pulled from a diverse range of legends and mythology, pop up throughout the tale.

And though the characters never talk in the show, its character names, literal translations like “Immortal Old Kung Fu Man,” may get a chuckle or two from the more cynical set.

But “Panda!,” the first Chinese-produced show on the Strip, asks the audience to just kind of go with it — and, if you do, you’ll be rewarded with an ambitious and good show that has many elements of a truly great one.

Even as an acquired taste, “Panda!” is far more accessible than it could be. There’s something a bit more universal in the story of “Panda!,” in which our panda hero, Long Long, is thrust into a supernatural adventure to rescue his kidnapped bride-to-be, the Peacock Princess.

It’s a textbook example of the hero’s journey, an old-fashioned tale of good-vs.-evil, with old foes becoming new friends, a damsel in distress and a triumphant comeback as all hope seems to be lost.

At a press conference leading into the show’s debut, “Panda!” director An Zhao described the show as featuring two of China’s national treasures, pandas and kung fu, and it does not disappoint with the latter courtesy of the China National Acrobatic Troupe and Shaolin Monastery Kung Fu Monks Troupe.

The talent brings to life the warriors, mermaids, demons and even an army of terra cotta soldiers in “Panda!” Especially charming is Long Long’s run-in with the drunken Monkey King and his band of monkey warriors early in the show.

The littlest monkey among this simian band of brothers — played by a pre-teen who’ll make an even better return later in the show — is especially adorable.

Another sequence sees our hero encounter a band of monks, with whom he diligently trains in the martial arts, even if it sometimes has comedic results.

The monks display impressive acts of balance, weapon expertise and aerial athleticism as they spar and leap, but the standout of the act is the youngest monk, who not only shows off his prowess but also proves that he knows how to use his head. Literally. These parts are sure to be a particular favorite for fans of martial-arts films.

Throughout the show, the antagonist Demon Vulture has a cracking whip and a group of vulture lackeys at his command. He pops up a few times while the curtain is down for stage transitions. The first time, there’s an underwhelming street magic trick involving goldfish. That’s followed up by a simpler, but much more appropriate, trick that is befitting for a duplicitous villain like this one.

Kids and kids at heart will love it when the villain gets his at the end — spoiler alert: you didn’t see that coming? — and as the characters Long Long has met all return to help him in one final display of epic kung-fu-battle goodness. It’s silly — but the enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

Perhaps it’s best to think of the entire “Panda!” show as a delivery system for martial arts, one that just so happens to have a family-friendly layer of camp over it. Those Peacock Princesses and Demon Vultures will sound like a bit much to some, but the aforementioned kids and kids at heart will continue to think that Immortal Old Kung Fu Man is the coolest.

Jorge Labrador is the news assistant for Las Vegas Magazine.

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