I really wanted to love Monkey: Journey to the West. Being a long-time fan of Blur and Damon Albarn, I was excited to learn that he and his Gorillaz collaborator, Jamie Hewlett, and the director Chen Shi-Zheng, had adapted the 16th-century, classic Chinese novel for the stage. I've been anxious to see the production since it debuted at the Manchester International Festival in 2007, so I was incredibly excited to learn that it was set to open up this year's Lincoln Center Festival on July 6th and play for three weeks.
After seeing it this past weekend, I was left feeling disappointed. While I did enjoy the eclectic mix of electronic/Chinese Opera/pop music Albarn composed (the catchy, girly Heavenly Peach Banquet will be stuck in your head for hours!), the colorful and quirky visuals (Hewlett designed the sets, costumes, and created animations), and the dynamic (though at times out of sync) acrobatics, martial arts and aerial stunts, the dialogue and narrative are seriously lacking. Granted the fable is pretty complicated, but the narrative is so choppy and confusing that it doesn't even come close to telling a clear or cohesive story. The show's program offers a scene-by-scene synopsis that provides a shallow explanation of what is happening.
Quick summary: The Monkey King, born from a stone egg, one day realizes that we are all destined to die. Not cool with the prospect of his demise, Monkey seeks out the Daoist Master Subodhi who grants him immortality and gives him the name Sun Wu Kong - Monkey with the Realization of Emptiness. Monkey then obtains armor and cloud-hopping shoes, giggles annoyingly and acts obnoxiously (whilst wearing a yellow tracksuit reminiscent of Albarn's Blur days), wreaking havoc under the sea and up in heaven, causing Buddha to imprison him under his palm for 500 years.
Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, releases Monkey under the condition that he accompany and protect the wet blanket monk, Tripitaka, on a voyage to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. They are joined by the languid Sandy (a general who was exiled to a river of sand and eats humans for kicks), a white horse (who was formerly the Dragon Prince), and the mildly amusing Pigsy, a gluttonous, lusty Daoist sage. Aside from Pigsy, the sidekicks aren't all that interesting. Their intriguing backstories might have spiced up their roles if they hadn't been glossed over. You learn more about Sandy and the white horse by reading the program.
The crew encounters some obstacles along their journey—The White Skeleton Demon (who tries to eat Tripitaka), The Spider Woman (who tries to seduce them), and Princess Iron Fan (who possesses a magic fan they need to extinguish a fire). Monkey gets kicked out of the group for his erratic behavior and penchant for violence and then returns to save everybody, and they all ultimately reach Paradise and enlightenment.
Hewlett's animations could have helped fill in many of the show's gaping holes—he could have added fun introductions and descriptions of characters (many minor characters come and go, in and out of nowhere), and while the super-titles introduced the names of each of the nine scenes (as well as translated the Mandarin dialogue and lyrics into English), he could have added some narrative graphics to entice the audience with clues as to what was about to happen. His animations were particularly helpful in scenes that might otherwise have been difficult to portray, like Monkey's birth, or Monkey's turning into a bee so he can fly down Princess Iron Fan's throat and fight her from within (seriously).
Overall, Monkey: Journey to the West is a visual and musical treat. The many kids in the audience seemed engrossed throughout and delighted by the exciting spectacle. For the adults - just don't expect to be enlightened.
Learn more at monkeyjourneytothewest.com (two hours, no intermission). Through July 28th.