Monkey: Journey to the West 

With beefed-up character development this show would be perfect

“Is this like Pokemon?” asked one audience member before Monkey: Journey to the West began. “Is it live action?”

She could be forgiven for asking these questions, gazing up at a large pre-show projected image of the show’s cartoonish characters — animal spirits, demons, and heavenly creatures among them.

Thankfully, this exemplary Chinese circus opera (performed in Mandarin with English supertitles) has nary a peek of Pokemon and is packed with action. It’s a hip musical retelling of a 1,400 year old epic about a pilgrimage to India. The pilgrim is the chaste Tripitaka, accompanied on his journey by three fallen angels, Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy.

As the saga was retold over the years, the mischievous Monkey became the center of the story. But it’s the relationship between the four characters that’s helped the tale endure. Pigsy, a swine demon, chases chicks and stuffs his face. Sandy is the dour one, a hippy sea demon who’s the straight man to Monkey’s anarchist.

Monkey is a snarling, spitting, endearingly cheeky underdog, railing against forces greater than him and refusing to acknowledge his weaknesses. He’s no fool; he is a down-on-his-luck demigod, stuck on earth with a human priest on a 14-year trek through demon-infested landscapes. No wonder he loves a good scrap.

Chen Shi-Zheng’s Monkey: Journey to the West reimagines the pilgrimage as a series of breathtaking circus acts, searing opera solos, and colorful imaginary characters. The writer/director is aided by Damon Albarn, former Blur frontman and co-founder of the Gorillaz. He stamps his percussive brand on the oriental score. The visuals (and cool masks) are conceived by Jamie Hewlett, who is probably best known for animating the Gorillaz group. A few cartoon scenes help to give this production its epic scope, showing Monkey hatching from a stone egg, swimming deep under water and soaring to Heaven. The art is projected on a thin curtain, allowing energetic Monkey actor Fei Yang to blend with his animated alter ego.

Chen’s version of events holds together, even for audiences who don’t know the difference between Pigsy and Pikachu. Monkey seeks immortality, visiting an old guru and a sea monster (where he gets a magically shrinking staff to bust heads with). In Heaven, he dodges contortionist caterers and roller-blading angels to eat a peach that grants him the immortality he craves. Buddha isn’t pleased, trapping him for 500 years.

Monkey is released by Tripitaka, who is en route to India to collect Buddhist scriptures.

They are joined by Sandy, Pigsy, and a bizarre two legged horse.

Chen makes great use of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe, who juggle, spin, and balance on top of each other various different scenes — a cave of spiders, a land of fire, and a Buddhist temple. The Dalian acrobats are joined by martial artists who do their best to chop the chimp in one sword fight after another, the best of which is a battle royale on top of the Fiery Mountains. On the opening night of the show, Li Bo handled the staff fighting during these scenes; typically, Li and Fei alternate portraying the Monkey.

Rounding out the cast is Yao Ningning as Tripitaka, playing the priest in a more lighthearted way than is traditional; Xu Kejia as Pigsy, emphasizing the porker’s oversized libido; and He Zijun as Sandy, who shines in one beautiful solo but has little else to do except follow his friends’ lead.

Zeng Li stands out in multiple roles, including that of a sensuous Spiderwoman balancing delicately from suspended silk. Jiang Qianru is a commanding White Skeleton Demon and a scheming Princess Iron Fan.

While there are a couple of female solos that are challenging to listen to, most of the vocals are gorgeous (Jiang’s included). Albarn’s music, directed by David Coulter and conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer, makes creative use of Chinese percussion, electronic instruments and the Klaxophone, which utilizes 12 car horns. The music helps to keep the story moving.

However, if there one point where Monkey falters, it is when it comes to the characters. The core relationship between the travelers is underdeveloped, and as a result, the production loses some potential charm.

Spoletians will still gets their money’s worth, though, thanks to Hewlett’s eye-popping costumes, the extensive wire work, and the swiftly moving large-scale sets, all organic shapes and Barbarella colors. With over 60 supple performers vying for attention, the visuals can be overwhelming at times, and if you’d like to read the supertitles sit at the back — anyone close to the stage is guaranteed a crick in the neck.

Monkey won’t bless you enlightenment, and some of the far-flung plot points may leave you scratching your head like an itchy ape, but Journey to the West is guaranteed a unique piece of musical theatre you’ll never forget.

Monkey: Journey to the West • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$65 • 2 hours • May 22, 26, 28, 29, 30, June 3, 5, 6, 7 at 8 p.m.; May 23, 24 at 7 p.m.; May 25, June 1, at 6 p.m.; May 26, 31, June 7, 8 at 2 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. •(843) 579-3100

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