NEW YORK - If I saw

Slava's Snowshow

- a performance by clowns that morphs into a spectacle - at the Philly Fringe Festival, I'd say

omigod, this is so cool.

If I went to

Slava's Snowshow

at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, I'd say,

omigod, what's going on here?

Much of life is a matter of context.

So I went to the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway to see

Slava's Snowshow

, which opened last night for a limited holiday run, and I said,

ohmigod, what's going on here?

It's a mix of Russian-style clowning - its creator, Slava Polunin, is among the world's leading clowns - and stage effects that envelop, literally, the entire audience.

In the tradition of Russian clowns, the 90-minute show

offers routines high on emotive facial expressions with simple but calculated movement - the clowns generally eschew slam-bang slapstick, and even the kinetic movement of master American clown/actor Bill Irwin. Rather, they seem to

think

about such things, creating their fun in a more cerebral way.

This all takes timing and talent, and the courage to cajole an American audience into something much more subtle than usual. So call me a banana-peel Neanderthal and send me to my cave (mind the peels), but while I admire the performances in

Slava's Snowshow

, I found it strange and unconvincing in a Broadway house, even the smallish Helen Hayes Theatre.

Theater can happen anywhere, of course, but when it's on Broadway, it's a big-bucks proposition that ought to carry big-ticket weight. This show seems a better fit for Off-Broadway - say, the Union Square Theatre, where it ran for 1,004 performances at half the Broadway price before closing last year as that theater's highest grosser.

The show's second half is a marked contrast to the first. As intermission ends, clowns walk atop the backs of seats in the auditorium with open water bottles pouring from the tips of their umbrellas. (Prepare to be wet, a little.)

Act Two includes fewer annoying cloud-machine effects, a classic bit with a clown and a coat he brings to life with one of his arms, a charming piece with oversized phones, and a little clowning for which the audience almost organically provides the sound effects.

It ends with a swirling storm, in which ticker-tape snow falls and falls from the theater's ceiling and shoots out wildly in piles from the stage, along with inflated balls of many massive sizes. (In a clown act in its show

Alegría

, Cirque du Soleil uses a similar but infinitely more poignant snow effect that, when it played in Philadelphia in 2004, had jaws dropping at its profound beauty.)

Long after the clowning is finished, the audience volleys the balls that have bounced in with the storm. Or maybe the clowning isn't finished. By that point, the clowns are still on stage prodding the audience, and I couldn't tell. I do know that a lot of people left

Slava's Snowshow

with smiles, even if I left saying,

omigod, what's going on here

? Which I am still asking myself.

Slava's Snowshow

Through Jan. 4 at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St. Tickets: $111.50. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or

.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.