Legit Review: ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’

Legit Review: 'Monkey: Journey the West'

Gorillaz founders' mash-up of Chinese myth and Western electro-pop is a visual feast

After wending its way through the international festival circuit since its 2007 debut, “Monkey: Journey to the West” has arrived at Lincoln Center, which is running this eye-popping extravaganza of opera, dance, circus acrobatics and visual pyrotechnics for a full month — and marketing the show for all it’s worth.  The Buddhist philosophy behind this 16th-century Chinese fable lightly hovers (in English supertitles) over the tale. But the spectacular stage effects devised by helmer-provocateur Chen Shi-Zheng (“The Peony Pavilion”) and Gorillaz founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are more in the modern tradition of Japanese anime and Cirque du Soleil.  

Where to look first? The stage is a whirl of amazing sights and fantastic sounds, all centered on the quest of a mythical if very realistically naughty Monkey King (a role shared by Wang Lu and Cao Yangyang). This irrepressible imp, a chatterbox who moves in leaps and bounds while clutching his crotch, is promised immortality for protecting Tripitaka (the enchanting Li Li), a pious monk traveling to India on a spiritual mission to retrieve sacred texts.

Accompanying the principals on this quest are the kind of whimsical characters you might find in a children’s fairy tale, including a prince who has been transformed into a white horse and a greedy type who has been given the gross characteristics of a pig.  Of more interest than these imperfect human animals are the wondrous creatures following the progress of this little band.  Some use their supernatural powers to confer gifts — including the magical rod and golden armor that turn the Monkey King into a great warrior — while others, like the White Skeleton Demon who hopes to achieve immortality by eating Tripitaka’s living flesh, are out to do the travelers no good. One clear audience favorite is Princess Iron Fan, the formidable female warrior played by the formidable Chen Jiaojiao.

Drawing on the talents of his visionary design team, helmer Chen Shi-Zheng has created a wonderland of ingenious effects. Hewlett’s dazzling animation scenes take the cinematic action under the sea, over the mountains, and right through the gates of paradise, transported on the wings of Albarn’s score, which embraces every musical idiom from classical Chinese opera to decidedly modern electronic pop. The luscious lighting for these flights of fancy is the work of West End master Nick Richings, with stunning sound design by Barry Bartlett.

Not all the individual scenes of this multifaceted spectacle are on the same brilliant level as the one set at the Heavenly Peach Banquet of the Queen of Heaven or the one that takes place at the Crystal Palace of the Old Dragon King.  But the stage movement — a blended visual design of formal stage opera, aerial and martial arts choreography and traditional Chinese circus acrobatics by the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company — is never less than spectacular.  Altogether, this is epic entertainment for a summer night in the city.

Legit Review: 'Monkey: Journey to the West'

Lincoln Center; 2,548 seats; $250 top. Opened July 6, 2013. Reviewed July 7. Running time:  ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.


A Lincoln Center Festival presentation of a co-production by Theatre du Chatelet and Manchester Intl. Festival, of a music theater piece based on a classic Chinese folk tale, "Journey to the West." Conceived, written and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, with music by Damon Albarn. Mandarin dialogue, English supertitles.


Visual concept, animation and costumes, Jamie Hewlett; lighting, Nick Richings; sound, Barry Bartlett;  Masks, prosthetics, makeup and wigs, Bertrand Dorcet; original aerial choreography, AntiGravity/Caroline Vexler; new aerial choreography, Heather Hammond; martial arts choreography, Zhang Jun; conductor, Brad Lubman; music supervisor, Mike Smith; production stage manager, Lisa Iacucci.


Wang Lu, Cao Yangyang, Li Li, Xu Kajia, Dong Borui, Li Lianzheng, Liu Kun, Yao Zhuoran, Chen Yijing, Chen Jiaojiao, Huo Yuanyuan, Liu Chang, Hu Yuanjun, Dong Ziqiang, Zhao Peng, Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company, Ensemble Signal.

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  1. iva says:

    I wanted to see this in Manchester when it opened and then in Paris when it was in Chatelet. Finally I saw it in New York. I loved the music, it was the Blur sound which I love. Albarn is a really talented composer. But I could have appreciated that with my eyes closed. As for what was going on on the stage – it was empty. No story. No connection to anything. Attempts at philosophy annoyingly banal. The spider woman part was ok, as for the rest it was just joggers that go round and round and round…

  2. Karlo says:

    If I knew a little bit more about Chinese culture or Buddhism I’m pretty sure I would still have gated this show. A lot of bits just strung together . We’re the performers Circe cast offs?

  3. Joshua says:

    This is a fabulous show. It is stunning beautiful. The naughty monkey king sometimes makes people forget that the show is rather philosophical. It showcases some of Chinese acrobatic repertoire.

  4. Don says:

    1st – I haven’t seen this yet but I am intrigued b/c I really love Monkey King and Gorillaz.
    2nd -Not sure about Jerry’s review…”someone” seems to have posted the EXACT same post here: http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/theater-review-monkey-journey-to-the-west.html
    Not sure why, not sure of purpose posting on different site under different name. Just thought it should be brought up.
    The Variety review is a bit flowery w/o many negatives while the Vulture has some critique.
    Anyone ELSE have a critique of this show? – I’m thinking of seeing this next week.

  5. Jerry says:

    Just saw it Fri, Jul 12 and I must say its really horrible. Worst show I’ve ever seen. This is Lincoln Center? I wanted to like it. I am familiar with the story. To be fair, yes, it was an eye candy experience. But that was it! The show itself has no real story line. The characters never appealed or connected to me or the audience. The scenes seemed fragmented, a cornucopia of multicolored scenes but never really amounting to a cohesive story. You are left flummoxed, bored and annoyed because you wasted an evening let alone your money. Who decided this should be shown at this prestigious location? The best joke is that it’s being shown for an extended period (27 shows) luring unsuspecting victims. I know it’s not about the acrobatics but they were mediocre at best. Don’t waste your time and money. There are plenty of other good shows around. If you do decide to go, don’t say I didn’t warn you :-)

    • Joshua says:

      Come on! No real story line? A talented monkey escorted a monk to seek scriptures in India. The group had to overcome many difficulties. It even has a happy ending a la Hollywood. You may say that you do not like the story line, but it is not fair to say there is no real story line.

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