Even casual music fans know Damon Albarn as the voice who shouts ”Woo-hoo!” in sports arenas around the country. That track, called simply ”Song 2,” was British band Blur’s most-identifiable contribution to music on American shores, though it was not indicative of the breadth of Blur’s sonic palette. Nor of Albarn’s. Since his combo dissolved near the turn of the century, he has dedicated himself to broadening his musical canvas. He has toyed with other bands, produced for legends, and combed the world for new and traditional sounds from other cultures. He’s a true savant.
After his backdoor football anthem, Albarn’s most boldfaced project was Gorillaz, a collaboration with Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. The band members were literal cartoons, but the music was no joke — Gorillaz combined the thud of hip-hop with the glitch possibilities of electronic dance music and the psychedelic slackerdom of indie rock for a gloriously weird trip through the jungle.
Albarn has reteamed with Hewlett (along with writer and director Chen Shi-Zheng) for the opera Monkey: Journey to the West, a new two-hour piece based on an ancient Chinese tale about a simian king who is punished by Buddha and seeks redemption in an epic pilgrimage to India. Blur fans hoping the cast will sing and dance to Blur’s ”Girls and Boys” (one of the band’s frothier dance-rock anthems) will be disappointed, as the music from Monkey blends traditional Chinese instruments with a tribal backbeat, and all the lyrics are sung in Mandarin (there are English supertitles, though the story is basic enough and the performances so physical and specific that it’s pretty easy to follow along without reading every interjection from the Monkey King).
Monkey scores on spectacle, as the singers are joined by a cadre of dancers, tumblers, acrobats, and aerialists who turn certain scenes — especially a visit to an undersea kingdom featuring singing starfish and a one-eyed octopus — into gloriously trippy physical collages. It’s a visual triumph — the costumes, masks, wigs, and at least one full-body panda suit lend the tale a fantastical quality and allow the performers to shift and disappear into their scenes.
Though it starts strong, especially when incorporating new pieces of animation by Hewlett, Monkey loses steam in its second half once the King (Wang Lu shares the role with Cao Yangyang) teams up with his fellow redemption seekers: Virtuous Tripitaka (Li Li), oafish Pigsy (Xu Kejia and Liu Kun), and bland Sandy (Dong Borui and Li Lianzheng). Though there are some impressive tableaus and a lot of killer fight choreography, the welcome overstuffedness of the first hour makes the second feel like a downshift in momentum, especially during the climactic showdown on a volcano. (Tellingly, the animation also vanishes during these sequences.) Plus, the pilgrimage follows video-game logic: Travel to a place, solve a riddle, fight a boss, and move on. It gets a little numbing, especially during the sequence when Monkey gets sent away — his charisma is so overwhelming that the rest of the cast struggles to hold it together without him on stage.
Like Gorillaz, Monkey: Journey to the West tries to cram as much as it can into a single entity, and there are an awful lot of elements at play here: the physicality of Cirque Du Soleil, the mask-and-puppet trippiness of The Lion King, the serious broadness of traditional opera, and the mosaic thump of various international dance rhythms. It would be impossible for the center to hold for a full two hours, but when it’s on, this Monkey can really swing. B