The McCourt at the Shed
The Bloomberg Building
545 West 30th St. at Eleventh Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 27, $25-$99
In 1999, Chen Shi-Zheng presented his widely hailed twenty-hour production of The Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Center. Perhaps the China-born, New York-based director is used to longer spectacles, because it takes quite a while for his hundred-minute Shed commission, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, to get cooking at the McCourt, where it continues through July 27. The final twenty minutes of the kung-fu musical are everything audiences hoped for, an exhilarating combination of martial arts and movement (choreographed by Zhang Jun and Akram Khan), sound (by Brandon Wolcott) and music (by Bobby Krlic and Arca), acrobatics, and storytelling; what comes before is a treacly narrative with mundane songs (by Sia) right out of a Disney movie; in fact, the show was co-conceived and written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, the duo behind the DreamWorks family film series Trolls and Kung Fu Panda.
The story shuttles between modern-day Flushing, Queens, and the near future, although you can’t really tell that from Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s set, which features a very cool ancient boulder on one side, a ladder that leads to a walkway in a silly, glitzy nightclub on the other, and hanging cloths that rise and fall, beautifully illuminated by lighting designer Tobias G. Rylander and Leigh Sachwitz’s colorful, swirling projections. In the mostly senseless fable, aging kung fu master Lone Peak (David Patrick Kelly) is not happy when his daughter, Little Lotus (Jasmine Chiu), is being courted by flashy billionaire Doug Pince (David Torok, a martial artist who needs more acting lessons). Pince is after the Dragon Spring, which is rumored to offer eternal life. When Lone Peak’s protégé, Lee (Dickson Mbi), turns traitor, evil rears its ugly head. Eighteen years later, Little Phoenix (Jasmine Chiu) and Little Dragon (Ji Tuo) meet, leading to a grand finale.
Chen (Orphan of Zhao, Monkey: Journey to the West) was inspired to make Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise by Bruce Lee’s 1964 audition for The Green Hornet, and much of the show has the simplicity of a run-of-the-mill 1960s television series. Plot twists don’t fit, character motivation comes out of nowhere, and set pieces are random and repetitive. But then the last scenes save it from a fate worse than death as the many elements coalesce into a gratifying whole. In a program note, Chen explains, “I wanted to create an allegory for the immigrant experience, transforming iconic Chinese images, movement, and ideas into an American context.” It never reaches that ideal — he dumbed it down too much — and it takes too long to gel, but when it finally does, it’s worth the wait.