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Time Out Theater Review: "Monkey: Journey To The West"

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A new theatrical spectacle based on a 16th century Chinese folktale, "Monkey: Journey To The West," is a pure, mind-blowing summer blockbuster. Time Out New York contributing critic David Cote filed the following review.

Summertime means blockbusters, at least in the multiplex: computer-enhanced fantasy epics light on substance, but big on visual splash. Well, this summer, there's a blockbuster in the theater. It's "Monkey: Journey To The West," an English-Chinese multimedia opera that is pure, mind-blowing spectacle.

"Monkey" is a curious hybrid creation. Damon Albarn, best known from the UK band Blur, has written a polyglot score that mingles electronic soundscapes, Philip Glass-type minimalism and music inspired by Chinese opera. Visuals and animated sequences are by illustrator Jamie Hewlett, who also created the virtual band Gorillaz with Albarn.

Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng weaves these elements into a sprawling, episodic quest narrative about a Chinese monk who sojourns west to India to receive sacred Buddhist scriptures. Along the way, he is protected by a half-man, half-pig creature, an ex-general turned river monster, and, of course, the title character, the staff-wielding Monkey King. The latter is a handful: violent and anti-authoritarian by nature. But even this naughty monkey learns, as the Buddha teaches, reality is just an illusion.

There's a lot going on here: visual splendor, kung fu fighting and Eastern philosophy. It doesn't always cohere or come through clearly, but it's family friendly, with impressive scenography and acrobatics. Albarn's music is often enchanting, and if the acting is overly broad, at least these hard-working circus troupers put on a good show.

At two hours without intermission, this multimedia extravaganza could use tightening and a less insipid libretto, but I have to say: If you like kung fu battles, cartoons, Chinese opera and Buddhism, you will go ape for "Monkey."

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