We’re off to see the Buddha in White Snake premiere of “Monkey, A Kung Fu Parable” 

September 23, 2023 at 12:30 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

White Snake Projects presented the world premiere of Monkey, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable Friday night at Emerson Paramount Center. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Perhaps it was inevitable that kung fu and opera would one day cross paths. 

Regardless, it’s entirely unsurprising that these Eastern and Western cultural icons should do so under the auspices of White Snake Projects, Boston’s spunky, “activist opera” troupe. That eventuality occurred with the world premiere of Monkey, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable Friday night at Emerson’s Paramount Center.

With a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs, a score by Jorge Sosa, extensive puppetry, and some videography, the work recounts (in a brisk 75 minutes) the tale common to various Asian cultures of “dearest Monkey,” who, after offending the Buddha, is sentenced to a long imprisonment. Upon release, he’s required to aid a monk in his quest to find the Buddhist sutras and return them to China.

Along the way, Monkey and his entourage (which, in addition to the Monk, includes a pig called Zhu and a sand demon named Sha) are tempted by and do battle with the evil Mara. After a climactic fight scene involving—finally!—kung fu, our heroes triumph and find redemption. The title character, though, takes a pass on Buddha’s offer of heaven and instead demands the freedom to remain a mortal and explore the universe.

If this all sounds a bit like The Magic Flute and Die Frau ohne Schatten (individuals and/or couples undergoing trials by fire) crossed with a touch of Wozzeck (in a key subplot Monkey relieves himself on what turns out to be Buddha’s hand) and a helping or two from The Wizard of Oz, that’s apparently as things should be. In fact, references to Warner Brother’s 1939 classic emerge at various points in the current production, which is directed by Roxanna Myhrum.

The most obvious is the gang of innocents on the march, unaware of the dangers that lurk at every turn. Guan Yin, Buddha’s emissary, appears as something of a cross between a Valkyrie and Glinda, the Good Witch. Updating things a bit, Mara might have dropped in from a run of The Wiz.

It all adds up to a show that never takes itself too seriously— Monkey’s pee scene could hardly be part of an opera that did—yet still manages to draw some thoughtful connections between values, rituals, and beliefs that are shared among various cultures and across long distances.

Monkey accomplishes this despite a libretto that is serviceable, at best. Most of its characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. Jacobs’ lyrics are sometimes verbose, her word choices can be awkward, and the dialogue regularly turns silly (“My tummy hurts,” Pig intones at one point. “Because you’re a pig,” Monkey retorts). Da Ponte this is not.

Sosa, though, has responded with a score that’s thoroughly accessible and never far removed from popular sources, especially the rock-driven soundtracks of ‘70s and ‘80s action movies and TV shows. There’s plenty of rhythmic variety on offer, including ostinatos that tie together various thematic strands. He’s also got a wonderful sense of atmosphere and color that’s often evinced in the deft writing for percussion.

What the music in Monkey generally lacks are strong tunes, especially in the form of arias and ensembles for its main characters. Sosa is capable of such: his melodic writing for Monkey’s and Pig’s respective temptations is beguiling. However, he frequently opts instead for parlando-type text settings for the leads, sometimes with unexpected flourishes thrown in for good measure. The results are, in turn, underwhelming and thematically forgettable.

Phoro: Kathy Wittman

Despite the issues, some stars emerged on Friday.

Countertenor Chuanyuan Liu was one, singing the title role with otherworldly bravado. His part’s florid melismas tumbled effortlessly and Liu’s pure tone cut through the hall with an invigorating punch. So did Maria Dominique Lopez’s Sha, who proved a marvel of true pitch, tonal warmth, and clear enunciation.

Meantime, Christina Maria Castro’s Guan Yin offered a gleaming instrument to match her shining, Wagnerian costume, though her high-lying part often wreaked havoc on diction. The last also affected Carami Hilaire’s otherwise furious account of Mara.

Dylan Morrongiello’s Monk was aptly stentorian. While John Paul Huckle struggled to project Zhu’s low-tessitura utterances, his higher register pronouncements and snorts emerged readily, the latter comically.

Navigating key supporting roles were members of the children’s chorus VOICES Boston, who sang with wonderful blend, impeccable diction, and spot-on intonation.

Monkey’s puppetry—designed by Tom Lee & Chicago Puppet Studio and expertly managed by the sextet of Carlos Jose Torres Lopez, Elliott Purcell, Nathaniel Justiniano, Angela Guo, Amanda Gibson, and Lawrence Chan—ensured the production a touch of whimsy and fantasy. So did the animated videography for the culminating, martial arts-infused battle sequence, which called to mind a daffy brew of primitive video games, Bruce Lee flicks, and Adam West’s Batman.

Tianhui Ng led an assured, adroitly shaded accompaniment from the pit. The instrumental complement (string quintet plus piano and drum kit) tended to balance well with the voices on stage, though, periodically, issues with muddled vocal amplification emerged.

Costumes and sets by Kristen Connolly and Andreea Mincic, respectively, centered the action someplace vaguely Asian and captured the darkness at the heart of the tale well; the wintry scene involving the near-sacrifice of a baby was aptly chilling. The duo’s efforts were nicely enhanced by Chris Carcione’s seasonal projections and Kat Zhou’s lighting scheme.

Before the main event came a “curtain raiser” showcasing a pair of artists from Sing Out Strong: Questing Voices. Abysmal traffic, even by Boston standards, kept me from arriving in time to hear Donte Harrison performing “New Place,” but Justin Dimanche’s take on J. André Ballesteros’ “Counting” offered a winning blend of soulful phrasings and discreet instrumental accompaniments from the pit band.

White Snake Project’s Monkey, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday  and 2 p.m. Sunday at Emerson Paramount Center. whitesnakeprojects.org

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