If the month is July and the venue is Lincoln Center, shouldn't we be taking a break from the beach to contemplate the dark heart of the human psyche, guided by some furrow-browed Germanic theater director?
Instead, Lincoln Center Festival is offering audiences a day at the beach, figuratively, with 100 minutes of visual pyrotechnics titled Monkey: Journey to the West. Its 27 performances at the David H. Koch Theater through July 28 constitute the longest run presented by the festival and is almost shockingly lightweight and flashy, especially for something so prominently featured here. Though presented all over the world since 2007, this show's westward journey would make more sense at Radio City Music Hall.
The 45-person company includes vocalists singing in Mandarin, flying spirits of various sorts amid fanciful, lavish settings (the Jade Emperor's heaven, for one), with a hyperactive central character (yes, the Monkey King), a hyper-physical Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company – plus a giant Buddha – all propelled by an electronic dominated score by ex-rock star Damon Albarn. No question why the show has been good box office.
Yet for all its theatrical resources – did I mention the long passages of computer animation? – the Monkey's picaresque journey to enlightenment (not dissimilar to Peer Gynt's) never went beyond two dimensions, always boggling the eye, never engaging the heart. Those who bring a personal history to these Asian archetypes (as codified in the 15th-century Wu Cheng'en novel) might feel differently:
Though we're given the events of Monkey's life (hatching out of a egg struck by lightning), the lack of a real character exposition suggests the audience already has a visceral relationship with the saga. Music can compensate with a poetic dimension, but the genre here is "semi-opera" similar to Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen, depicting characters of great cultural familiarity but using music for secondary figures and incidental atmosphere.
Not only does the central Monkey character do little singing, but expresses himself mostly in barks, shrieks and crotch scratching, to which Wang Lu didn't bring a lot of charisma at Sunday evening's preview performance. Luckily, his adventures, as in "The Wizard of Oz," accumulate fun, otherworldly characters along the way. I particularly connected with Xu Kejia's portrayal of the earthy Pigsy, the victim of a botched reincarnation (aren't we all?).
Photo: Wang Lu as Monkey and marial artist Wang Longchao in 'Monkey: Journey to the West'
The concept, text and direction are attributed to Chen Shi-Zheng (who made his name in The Peony Pavilion in the 1990s). But the piece's specific visual character carried the strong mark of Jamie Hewlett, who has worked with composer Albarn in broadly drawn pop videos by Gorillaz. In this show, animation depicts events while staged scenes behave like arias, often presented in colors rarely seen outside of a Chinese pastry shop and more about pageantry than storytelling.
Albarn's score is skillfully wrought pop minimalism. The music establishes a basic groove over which more elaborate vocal and instrumental writing has a through-composed freedom to follow whatever twists the story and its characters offer but without losing those who have never heard of Einstein on the Beach. It's a family show, briskly paced and intermissionless, that does indeed take you to an alternate world, though not any place that feels genuine.