Shen Yun: a review

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Shen Yun.  There is no escaping the advertising. You have seen the billboards, the bus stop ads, and even the Youtube ads, but what is the show all about?

Having an adoration for Chinese tradition, I have been wanting to see the show for years, but then came the pandemic. A few months ago, I saw the ads popping up again and immediately bought tickets; I saw the show last night at the Orpheum in downtown Phoenix.

Shen Yun was not a play, nor was it a Cirque du Soleil. While there were technical dance maneuvers, flips, and sophisticated choreography, nobody was swinging on a trapeze or climbing up anything.

It was “a new program of dances inspired by China’s five thousand years of civilization,” as the brochure aptly put it.

Told through the medium of wordless, choreographed, classical Chinese dance, Shen Yun was a 2 hour and 15-minute show, of about 19 different acts, with a curtain drop between each one. At each curtain drop an American man and a traditionally-dressed Chinese woman would step onstage and explain what the next act would be about. Whatever he would say, she would translate into Chinese.

Three of the acts were not dances, however. One was a classic Chinese instrument recital, and the other two were Chinese opera recitals called Bel Canto.

The show did have a general overarching story involving the creation, destruction and redemption of mankind. But each act stood on its own and did not really develop the “plot” except for the first and last act.

Shen Yun had themes of faith, religion, compassion, the value of tradition, the toxicity of materialism, and even anti-communism.

Be ready for lots of vibrant colors, pretty smiling faces, and live traditional Chinese orchestra.

The show also included a 15-minute intermission.

As for my take on Shen Yun, I wanted to be absolutely blown away by this show, but I was not.  It was a good performance, and I enjoyed it, but it lacked something essential.

Perhaps it was the computer-animated backdrop. Call me old-fashioned, but I would have loved to have seen a good ol’ painting of China’s misty mountain tops and ancient Chinese architecture. Instead, I remember feeling the slightest bit cheated seeing computer animation. One word came to mind, cheap. It gave the performance a cheap appearance.

The other thing I was not fond of were the host and hostess.

First, they did not step on to the middle of the stage, it was off to the left, which meant turning your neck to see them speak every few minutes. It also seemed to disturb the flow of the show somehow. I suppose they were necessary to understand what was going on, yet it undoubtedly felt interrupting.

The woman translating in Chinese added a nice authentic touch at first, but after a while it seemed a bit gratuitous. I think it would have been better if the two co-hosted in English.

As for what I liked, there were some funny moments, and the live orchestra was excellent. There were moments where I did find myself mesmerized and completely absorbed by the experience, and I doubt many could say there was not at least one moment they felt something similar. The erhu recital (ancient Chinese instrument) was also pleasing.

Overall, I would give the show three out of five stars, but wanted badly to give it five. See it once in your lifetime, but do not spend too much on the tickets. If it is a toss-up between this one and another show, go to the other one.

If you decide to go, do not get seats anywhere in front of about the sixth or seventh row. For this show closer did not mean better (I was in the third row, middle right).  I turned my head a lot, and there were often several things happening onstage that proximity made impossible to see all at once.

The dress code was business formal, and while I got in the door with a polo shirt, jeans, and some Adidas, I felt underdressed.

Also, there is no photography or eating and drinking inside the theater. Masks were recommended, but not required.

As for logistics, get there 30 minutes before the show for parking and download the Air Garage app before going. It is a parking app that costs $5 for two and a half hours rather than the $30 at the parking lot. It was also only a five-minute walk to the Orpheum.

For more information on Shen Yun, visit https://tickets.shenyun.com/ The show will be in Phoenix again in March.