Monkey: Journey to the West: Theater Review

Marie-Noe"lle Robert
"Monkey: Journey to the West"
A busy multimedia poperatic circus mashup that fails to build dramatic momentum.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn and his Gorillaz animation partner Jamie Hewlett team with director Chen Shi-Zheng on this musical stage spectacle based on the classic Chinese tale.

NEW YORK – It’s worth staying for the curtain calls of Monkey: Journey to the West to see members of the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company cut loose and go hurtling through the air. But the demented Buddhist acid-trip spectacle that precedes those bows is just as often inert or infantile as it is intoxicating. Any show that includes a song called “Pigsy in Space” ought to be more transporting than this barely coherent attempt to package the ancient Chinese epic adventure for contemporary international audiences.

Conceived by opera and film director Chen Shi-Zheng, the production’s chief selling point is an original score by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, with visual design and extensive animation elements by his Gorillaz partner (and Tank Girl creator) Jamie Hewlett, working in his signature punky anime style. Whether that’s enough to lure the hipsters for a monthlong run as the centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival remains an open question.

The source material, Journey to the West, is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature and in many ways a cultural counterpart to The Odyssey. It dates from 1592 and is attributed to Wu Cheng’en. The story is a fantastical retelling of an overland expedition to India by a young Tang Dynasty monk to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures that would save China from decadence. It has been popularized in countless TV, film and stage versions. Notable among them is the cult-hit late-‘70s Japanese live-action television series Monkey, which appears to have influenced Hewlett’s designs.

The spiritual pilgrim, Tripitaka, is actually secondary to the main protagonist, Monkey. Hatched out of a stone egg in one of Hewlett’s wacky toon sequences, this mischievous Puck figure bounds about exuberantly tasting life until someone shares the bad news about inevitable death. That knowledge compels him to set off in search of the key to immortality. But Monkey’s violent, irreverent streak gets him imprisoned under the giant hand of Buddha for 500 years. He is freed by Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in exchange for a vow to protect Tripitaka on his journey. Along the way they pick up other strange disciples in need of redemption, and together they confront treacherous foes and tricksters en route to enlightenment.

Chen fashions this elaborate tale into a Beijing popera-meets-circus, complete with aerialists, acrobats and martial arts fighters. Albarn’s score combines percussive electronica with traditional Chinese instruments and flights of obsessive repetition that occasionally recall Philip Glass. The music can be catchy or hypnotic -- but also monotonous.

Performed in Mandarin with English supertitles, the text by Chen tends to get tangled up in Daoist and Buddhist mumbo jumbo about the distinctions between emptiness and form, and other abstract philosophical questions, rather than observing conventional plot logic. There’s much to distract the eye – stick fighters on Rollerblades; maidens twirling parasols on their feet; novice monks prostrating themselves in full body flips before a monolithic Buddha – but not enough to fully engage the mind.

In the current Broadway revival of Pippin, the athletic daredevilry is embedded into both story and spectacle. In Monkey, the balancing acts, handstands, plate-spinning and contortionist displays, impressive though they often are, tend to seem like grafted-on tricks that are seldom integral to the plot. The effect at times is that of an unfocused Cirque du Soleil act.

Scattered and chaotic, the storytelling is more captivating in isolated vignettes than as a fluid narrative, and the fusion of Hewlett’s animation with the live staging is most effective in the early action. Monkey’s birth segues amusingly to him romping among other simians, somersaulting and shimmying up bamboo stalks. The scene is like Rise of the Planet of the Apes meets Bring It On. Monkey’s underwater interlude in the Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea is also fun, as the Old Dragon King equips him with armor and weapons for his journey. The giant singing starfish, the one-eyed purple octopus, and yes, the teenage mutant ninja turtles appear to have wandered in from the crack-smoker’s version of The Little Mermaid.

But the charm of such stoner pleasures has its limits. Noisy, squawking, crotch-scratching Monkey (Wang Lu and Cao Yangyang alternate in the highly physical role) is the closest thing here to a fully developed character, and a little of his puerile humor goes a long way.

Sinophiles familiar with the story will get a kick out of Chen’s staging of key episodes such as the Spider-Woman encounter, with the villainess and her alluring companions pirouetting while suspended from fabric sashes; and the Volcano clash, when the pilgrims face off against deceitful Princess Iron Fan and her warrior women to cross the fiery landscape.

Albarn’s popsmith skills are at their sharpest when the lovely flying fairies are tittering about a “Heavenly Peach Banquet” before being rudely interrupted by Monkey’s hooliganism. And while a great deal of the singing is unmelodic to these Western ears, the vocals of Huo Yuanyuan as airborne Guan Yin are indeed celestial.

But though the show has played sellout short engagements in London and Paris, it’s difficult to imagine a wide audience beyond Gorillaz completists and nostalgic fans who first encountered the story during childhood.

Venue: David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York (runs through July 28)

Cast: Wang Lu, Cao Yangyang, Li Li, Xu Kejia, Liu Kun, Dong Borui, Li Lianzheng, Yao Zhuoran, Chen Yijing, Chen Jiaojiao, Huo Yuanyuan, Liu Chang, Hu Yuanjan, Dong Ziqiang, Zhao Peng

Director, concept & text: Chen Shi-Zheng, based on the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” attributed to Wu Cheng’en

Music: Damon Albarn

Visual concept, animation & costume designer: Jamie Hewlett

Lighting designer: Nick Richings

Sound designer: Barry Bartlett

Masks, prosthetics, makeup & wig designer: Bertrand Dorcet

Aerial choreographers: Heather Hammond, AntiGravity/Caroline Vexler

Martial arts choreographer: Zhang Jun

Music supervisor: Mike Smith

Presented by Lincoln Center Festival