By Brian Scott Lipton
Much like its mouthful of a title, “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” now premiering at the massive McCourt Theatre at The Shed at Hudson Yards, is a lot to take in. In under two hours, the internationally renowned director Chen Shi-Zheng (“The Peony Pavillion”) and his collaborators want to serve up the theatricality of Cirque du Soleil, offer a display of martial arts that honors (and continues) the legacy of Bruce Lee, and create a tale of family and morality that appeals to all ages that combines the sincerity and pathos of a Broadway musical. As it sounds, this is a tall order (literally, as some sequences begin 80 feet in the air), and while the show succeeds in achieving some of its goals, it often remains frustratingly earthbound.
The story, by “Kung Fun Panda” creators Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, concerns the protection of a Flushing, Queens spring that hides water that can provide immortality, which is overseen by the elderly Lone Park (an effective David Patrick Kelly). It’s a task that becomes even more dangerous after Doug Pince (David Torok, resembling a second-rate Bond villain), the billionaire husband of Lone Park’s daughter Little Lotus (played as a young woman by a charming Jasmine Chiu and then as a more hardened adult by the excellent Peilu Chien-Pott), teams up with Lone Park’s disgruntled protégé Lee (a properly menacing Dickson Mbi) in a nefarious scheme to gain control of the spring. It’s essentially a good-versus-evil allegory that even a six-year-old might be able to follow.
Indeed, in many ways, the enterprise possibly would have worked better as an animated film. For example, the movement could have been better manipulated cinematically; the great choreographer Akram Khan’s ritualized dances for the Asian warriors seem to owe as much to his own work, not to mention Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp, than to its source material. Indeed, I much preferred the more contemporary choreography exhibited in two nightclub sequences (brilliantly executed by a 12-person ensemble sporting Montano Levi Blanco’s surprisingly sexy costumes).
And while some of the martial arts sequences (choreographed by Zhang Jun), especially those in Act Two, are quite exciting to watch, the fact that Shi-Zheng uses a cast made up mostly of dancers doing their best to execute these tricky moves is never really lost on us.
Further, the vocals for the show’s few stand-alone songs (by the pop goddess Sia, and re-arranged by composers Bobby Kric and Arca) could have been “dubbed” by the likes of Lea Salonga or Shawn Mendes, rather than passably sung by the game cast (although Chien-Pott does provide a rather stirring rendition of the anthemic “Courage”).
Still, there is no substitute for live theater: watching water suddenly appear on Mikiko Suzuki McAdams’ concrete-looking set or having trap doors open and then lit on fire can never be truly replicated on film. (Kudos belong as well to the inventive lighting designer Tobias G. Rylander and special effects designer Jeremy Chernick, who make enormous visual contributions to the show.) So even if not everything in this show rises to the occasion, it’s still a one-of-a-kind experience that deserves your attendance.
Photos: Stephanie Berger
Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise continues at the McCourt Theatre at the Shed at Hudson Yards (545 West 30th Street) through July 27. Visit www.theshed.org for tickets and information.