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.