Theater lovers should expect “a spirit of adventure and invention” from the shows at The Shed, according to Alex Poots, the artistic director of this new $500 million arts center on West 30thStreet. I quote Poots in my article for TDF Stages about “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” which Poots is calling a kung fu musical.
In that spirit, allow me to acknowledge that, yes, “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise” is too long, too confusing, in places tedious, in other places overwrought and even creepy; its silvery and spandex costumes look like a mix of 1950s sci-fi movie and 1970s disco; its songs are paltry and its underscoring persistently annoying – New Age ambient pounding that cries out “We don’t trust that you’ll find what’s going on dramatic.” HOWEVER, amid the awfulness there are a scattering of impressive moments — of visual splendor, awesome stagecraft, and exciting dance and martial arts choreography… enough of them to make me glad that I can say I saw this first theatrical spectacle in The Shed’s inaugural season.
It’s best to think of the show as dance theater, and forget about the story, which doesn’t make much sense even if you can actually follow what’s going on. All you really need to know: It’s a fight between good and evil, over two generations, and (spoiler alert) good triumphs.
If you prefer some details: In the first act, Grandmaster Lone Peak (David Patrick Kelly, a Broadway veteran) and his scrappy daughter Little Lotus (Jasmine Chiu) are betrayed by Lone’s right-hand man Lee (Dickson Mbi), who wants to take over the Dragon Spring, which Lone and his ancestors have protected for generations, through a secret sect called the guardians of the House of Dragons, with branches all over the world, including Flushing, Queens, where the play takes place. Dragon Spring apparently holds the key to longevity. Lee has persuaded a billionaire wellness entrepreneur named Doug Pince (David Torok) to seduce Lotus. They marry and have twins, Little Dragon and Little Phoenix. The evil ones kill Little Lotus and her daughter Little Phoenix, and carry off Lotus’ son Little Dragon. But then Lone and the power of the Dragon Spring lift the dead Little Lotus and her baby 80 feet into the air, and bring them back to life. And then there’s an intermission, which brings the audience back to life.
In Act II, it is 18 years later, and Little Dragon (Ji Tuo) and Little Phoenix (again Jasmine Chiu) meet on their 18th birthday in the same club where their parents met, although they don’t know this. And since they’ve been raised separately, they don’t know they’re brother and sister. They’re drawn to each other (the creepy part) and start to kiss, until their mother, the adult Little Lotus (now PeiJu Chien-Pott) crashes into the club and breaks them apart, explaining what’s what, which freaks the two teenagers out.
From then on, it’s combat, not worth explaining other than to point out how excellent the dancing and thrilling the climax. All but one of the six principal cast members are dancers by training and profession, and each hails from a different country. Taiwanese-born PeiJu Chien-Pott, for example, is a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company.
In his interview with me, Poots said: “You would like everything to be perfect. When you’re making new art, it isn’t always. But when you’re working with great artists, there’s always something profound that you leave with.”
I’m not sure what’s profound about “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise” but it represents a collaboration among accomplished and popular artists from an unusually diverse array of disciplines and countries, some of whom had never worked theatrically before. Aibel and Berger, the script writers, are long-time screenwriters for animated TV series and movies; they wrote all three King Fu Panda movies. This is the first time they have ever written for flesh-and-blood people on stage before.
Writing for the stage was an adjustment. “We had to learn how to do without close-ups or blackouts; no fading in and out,” Aibel told me. “In an animated movie, the actor can do anything – fight and then tell a joke. In this show, the physicality of the performers is incredible, but after a fight they can be totally out of breath. You can’t go right into a song. You need to add some dialogue so they can catch their breath.”
Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise
Co-conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; Songs by Sia; Choreography by Akram Khan; Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng
Cast: PeiJu Chien-Pott, Dickson Mbi, David Patrick Kelly, Jasmine Chiu, David Torok, Ji Tuo, Kacie Boblitt, Conner Chew, Erika Choe, Coral Dolphin, Yuriko Hiroura, Abdiel Jacobsen, Elijah Laurant, Carley Marholin, Marla Phelan, Raziman Sarbini, Jacob Thoman, Xavier Townsend, Bret Yamanaka and Lani Yamanaka
Running time: 2 hours including an intermission
Tickets: $25 to $99
“Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise” is on stage at The Shed through July 27, 2019