Last weekend in the Emerson Colonial Theater, White Snake Projects premiered its lively new opera Monkey: A Kung Fu Puppet Parable, replete with colorful hijinks and a vibrant, polystylistic score.
Monkey adapts the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which features the clever, powerful Monkey King, known as Sun Wukong. He is tasked with escorting the monk Tang Sanzang on the titular journey to the west to retrieve Buddhist sutras; they are joined on their travels by a gluttonous pig-man, Zhu Bajie, and a sand demon, Sha Wujing. The epic of these four heroes is a mainstay in Chinese culture, and millions of children grow up hearing humorous and fantastical tales of the Monkey King and his fellow travelers. Being a Taiwanese-American child once myself, I was no exception — at one point I was even in a children’s puppet show based on the Monkey King! And so I was truly excited to see this beloved childhood saga on the opera stage, as a “kung fu puppet parable” here in Boston.
The evening began with two songs as curtain-openers, with lyrics written by young students from the Boston International Newcomers’ Academy. Both selections tackled the subject of growing up in immigrant families. “New Place,” featuring rapper Donte Harrison, spoke of acclimating to an unfamiliar new life in lyrics written by JL Rivera. Harrison performed with confident style against a solid hip-hop backing track. In contrast, singer Justin Dimanche performed “Counting,” a ballad with lyrics by Chenaya Valeus about helping a parent with the family business. With lyrical string lines, Dimanche’s heartfelt tenor voice portrayed a youthful hope.
Andrés Ballesteros composed both songs, and I was impressed by his versatility of style and memorable hooks. However, these curtain-openers didn’t seem to relate cohesively to the ensuing performance of Monkey. Still, they were honest, well-performed portraits of immigrant experiences.
Monkey was a wild ride. Directed by Roxanna Myhrum, the opera began with some kind of storytelling frame, where children in modern dress listened to a narrator beginning the tale of the Monkey King. Afterwards, the action shifted into the fantasy world. Onstage puppeteers portrayed the three magical travelers, here named simply as Monkey, Zhu, and Sha. Technically, Zhu was a performer in a large pig-man costume, but the other two were puppets operated by pairs of performers. The corresponding singers stood in boxed frames upstage, performing the vocals as the puppeteers performed the movements. It was interesting to separate the voices and physical representations of the characters, but I found myself continually drawn to the lively, expressive puppets. The Monk and his three disciples were a joy to follow.
Composer Jorge Sosa penned a rich, colorful score for Monkey. The music incorporated a wide range of styles, at times sounding like musical theater or metal, at others carrying Chinese or Latin influences. The scoring, for piano, strings, and percussion, aided this stylistic diversity; ponticello and harmonic effects on the strings added extra character to certain scenes, and a drumset sometimes reminded me of a rock opera like Tommy. (I asked the composer after and he did indeed have that show in mind!) At times the music became beautifully lush, such as the soothing lullaby, from a traditional Chinese melody. This score was not only eclectic but electric, always imbuing the production with life. Conductor Tianhui Ng helped bring forth a whole palette of timbres and atmospheres from this score, deftly directing the instrumental ensemble in expression while actively guiding the singers along the way with clear, attentive cues.
The libretto, written by Cerise Lim Jacobs (billed as ‘Opera Maker’ in the program), served the story and the music well in tone and wording. It was funny at the right times, and suitably reverent and dramatic at others. The tonal shifts felt appropriate for the action, whether lighthearted or epic.
I was interested in certain changes to the original story. The broad strokes are intact, as well as Monkey’s humorous origin story, in which he urinates on five mountains that turn out to be Buddha’s hand. But naturally, in adapting a hundred-chapter epic to a 90-minute opera, changes arise. The opera adds the character of Mara, the Demon Queen, who tempts and tries the heroes on their quest. No such overarching antagonist exists in the original Journey to the West as I remember it, but perhaps adding a recurring villain helps tie together the disparate vignettes of the story.
Additionally, the second half of the opera features moments focusing on Zhu and Sha, allowing both to have heroic moments. I appreciated this, but I felt that Monkey lost some of the spotlight. While the travelers are a four-man party, the Monkey King really is the star of Journey to the West (sorry to say it, Sha Wujing stans), and his mischievous, witty antics set the memorable tone of many of the novel’s episodes. Still, though the opera lost Monkey’s cheeky storybook humor in the middle, the lively choreography and action made up for it somewhat. Overall, it was a fun capturing of the tales of the Monkey King and company.
The cast of Monkey carried out a wonderful performance. Countertenor Chuanyuan Liu was lovably goofy as Monkey, with a strong, resonant voice. (The choice of countertenor for Monkey, especially for anyone who’s seen the 1986 live-action version of Journey to the West.) Dylan Morrongiello pulled off the somewhat serious Monk with gravitas and charisma, with several convincing dramatic moments. John Paul Huckle was a hoot, using his deep, big-bodied voice (accompanied by many pig snorts) for Zhu’s many comedic moments as well as a dramatic aria. Carami Hilaire as Mara the Demon Queen and Christian Maria Castro as the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, both were radiant and full of presence on stage, opposing each other in story but complementing each other beautifully as musicians. Hilaire’s wide range from thundering and menacing to soft and tender was impressive, and Castro’s sweetness and grace also had some sass to it. Maria Dominique Lopez portrayed Sha (here adapted as a female spirit) with a warm, full voice and an especially strong low range. The ensemble, which included a children’s chorus from VOICES Boston, filled in the action well. And of course, the puppeteers of Monkey, Zhu, and Sha were exciting to watch, well-synchronized with the singers, and full of personality.
The production was visually stunning, with beautiful sets and costumes throughout, though not without some oddities. In particular, the Sha puppet was gorgeous — a floating head and hands, with trailing white fabrics. Bold lighting and projections lit the stage, though some projections such as videos of actors’ faces seemed out of place. The CGI was thankfully used more sparingly than in last year’s Cosmic Cowboy; but during a fight scene towards the end, the 3-D models’ low quality distracted from the scene rather than adding to it. Finally, the “Kung Fu” in the title did appear in the opera, led by kung fu practitioner Lawrence Chan. He performed in a scene transition and there was some kung fu in certain fight scenes (one with lightsticks!), but I didn’t find the kung fu particularly well-integrated into the action.
Despite all the joys and highs, the whole artistic product did feel a bit unfocused. I didn’t perceive much in the way of an overarching theme or message — but I’m also not sure there needed to be one. The parts did not fit neatly into the whole, however. The curtain openers were lovely but didn’t connect well to Monkey. The “frame story” never came back at the end (as far as I remember). The CGI was subtle at first, but a miss when more prevalent (though again, better than Cosmic Cowboy). The kung fu was beautiful and culturally appropriate but didn’t feel cohesive in the stage action.
All that being said, Monkey was a ton of fun. It was a blast to watch and listen to, full of excitement and passion. And for me as an Asian-American, it was wonderful to see a story uniquely from my own cultural upbringing on stage in such a grand production. Really, there was so much life in Monkey that I enjoyed it just for what it was — a wild romp to the west, enlivened by colorful performances and brightly-scored action, together with some old childhood friends.