Review: ‘Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise’ at The Shed

For its opening 2019 season, The Shed – a central feature at the new Hudson Yards – presents the world-premiere of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, in keeping with its mission of “commissioning original works of art, across all disciplines, for all audiences.” Designed specifically for the towering and versatile space of The McCourt, the “kung-fu musical,” conceived and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (screenwriters of Kung Fu Panda), takes the form of a multimedia arena spectacle (here with seating for 1200 spectators), holding greater appeal for fans of theme-park or casino-style entertainment and action movies than aficionados of Broadway-quality theater.

David Torok, Jasmine Chiu, and Ji Tuo. Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy The Shed.

Referencing traditional Chinese philosophy, movement, and imagery, the clichéd saga of good versus evil, life and death, the magical quest for immortality, and the struggle to control it is set in present-day New York and eighteen years into the future (while the details of the slow-paced narrative are not always clear in the presentation’s minimal dialogue and paramount visuals, the specifics are explained in the program notes). The performers’ acting and singing are at best stilted and amateurish (veteran stage and screen actor David Patrick Kelly delivers the most satisfying portrayal as the wise old Kung-Fu Grandmaster Lone Peak), with a company that was obviously cast for its expertise in the martial arts and dance, not musical theater. But even those action scenes become over-extended and tedious, though fully in keeping with the show’s repeated message, “For the timeless, time means nothing.” For the audience, editing and pacing mean a lot.

The production design (original concept by Tim Yip) employs an extensive artistic team to create an environment of eye-popping and mood-enhancing stimuli intended to astonish, though sometimes resulting in an overload of “everything but the kitchen sink.” The visuals integrate character-defining costumes (Montana Levi Blanco), expressive lighting (by Tobias Rylander), videos (Leigh Sachwitz), fog and special effects (Jeremy Chernick) into a minimalist set (Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams), comprising an abstract mountain, a metal ladder and elevated runways, and a sky of dangling white fabric strips that move up and down with the action. They are augmented by reverberating sounds (Brandon Wolcott) and an original score and remixes of songs by Australian singer-songwriter Sia (by The Haxan Cloak, with additional remixes by Arca), to underscore the feelings of the one-dimensional characters and their experiences.

PeiJu Chien-Pott (below) with members of the chorus. Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of The Shed.

Central to both the theme and the production are the movement choreography by Akram Khan and martial arts choreography by Zhang Jun (with special thanks to Yuen Woo-Ping), offering an array of contemporary dance styles and kung-fu training and fight sequences around which the story revolves. Among the most breathtaking is the descent of dark-clothed warriors from above, in a scene so expertly lit in the darkness that the wires on which they’re suspended remain unseen by the audience. Other movement-based segments range in tone from hypnotic and transcendental to mind-numbing and deadening, depending on their length and redundancy, and the synchronized moves (or lack thereof) of the ensemble.

While theater-lovers are likely to find Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise overly ambitious, under rehearsed, and in vital need of editing, devotees of the martial arts and those who enjoy arena-style amusements might find some delight in the multi-sensory extravaganza of movement, light, and sound.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise plays through Saturday, July 27, 2019, at The Shed – 545 West 30th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (646) 455-3494, or go online.