The star wears a mustard-yellow tracksuit, scratches his crotch a lot and thrown half-eaten peaches all over the place. He disrespects royalty and sages, starts fights when he doesn’t get his way and serves 500 years in a unique detention, trapped beneath the giant blue palm of Buddha, for his misbehavior.
But the title hero of Monkey: Journey to the West – a dazzling collision of Chinese folklore, spiritual instruction and ethno-digital pop music now at the David H. Koch Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center – is also an imp with a mission, a pint-sized Jet Li with a magic rod and a hankering for immortality. Paroled from under Buddha’s thumb, Monkey serves his new master, the devout monk Tripitaka, with nutty, ingenious fidelity on a long, dangerous quest that finally ends in Paradise with just reward.
To paraphrase the Pixies: in this tale, first published as a 100-chapter novel during the Ming dynasty and based on the true-life pilgrimage of a seventh century priest, the monkey actually goes to heaven. He also gets a fitting playlist: an original score that jumps, drones and shimmers with antic imagination and authentic haunting, composed by singer-songwriter Damon Albarn of the British bands Blur and Gorillaz.
First presented in Manchester, England in 2007, Monkey: Journey to the West – conceived and direcrted by Chen Shi-Zheng with costumes and visual design by Gorillaz’ Jamie Hewlett – was Albarn’s operatic debut. At Lincoln Center, six years down the line and in the wake of his more assured fantastical-Elizabethan writing for the 2012 production Dr. Dee, Albarn’s Monkey music sounded formative but delightfully effective, a melange of Western orchestration, electronics and classical Chinese instrumentation (performed by the Ensemble Signal) as playful and propulsive as Shi-Zheng’s busy, sparkling mashup of magical realism, martial arts and moral lesson.
Albarn’s hijinks in Gorillaz, a futurist-R&B project wrapped in cartoon camo, were evident in the hip-hop inflections echoing Monkey’s B-boy gait as he scampered between scrapes and the chase-scene beats and whooping-synth loops running over Hewlett’s animated links. At times, Shi-Zheng unfolded the action around the quarrelsome, impatient Monkey – underwater at the Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea, at Buddha’s feet in the finale – at Robert Wilson-like speed, with courtly near-stillness. Albarn, in turn, heightened the trance with a gently repetitive minimalism: early-combo Philip Glass, the soft, creamy siren of a bowed saw and the delicate, plucked concision of the pipa and sanxian, played by the Chinese virtuoso Min Xiao Fen.
Albarn was already writing theatrical music at his first commercial peak, in the Britpop Nineties. Blur’s 1994 breakthrough, Parklife, is a sublime anthology of jangly soliloquy and deftly acidic portraiture descended from Ray Davies‘ middle-class pocket dramas for the Kinks and Pete Townshend‘s empathic, emotional focus in the Who’s Quadrophenia. For Monkey, Albarn did substantial and respectful research, including a field-recording trip to China with Shi-Zheng. Yet Albarn’s handful of fully drawn songs (with Shi-Zheng’s text) also recall, in their poise and melodic reach, his best, early writing for Blur. Even at this distance, it was easy to hear in “Heavenly Peach Banquet” – a sweet, eerie dessert sung by the Queen Mother of Heaven and her fairy retinue at Björk-like altitude (until Monkey bum-rushes the feast) – the plaintive, elegant precedence of Parklife‘s “This Is a Low” and the grand ballad “The Universal” on 1995’s The Great Escape.
Albarn’s conceptual, soundtrack and supergroup work has escalated to a superhuman degree since he wrote his Monkey score. He is about to release a solo album; Blur have been revived in fits and starts. By Albarn’s current evolutionary standards, this music seems and sounds, at points, like an eternity ago. But Monkey: Journey to the West is ultimately a story about endurance. Monkey eventually wins his immortality. Albarn is still working on his. This big, early step forward is at Lincoln Center through July 28th.