Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise Review

Touted in ads as a “futuristic kung fu musical”, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise is an imaginative premature hatchling at its world premiere at The Shed in Manhattan Hudson Yard. It has creative parentage in Chinese opera and film director Chen Shi-Zheng (Dark Matter) and Kung Fu Panda writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with Sia as the songwriter. On a $650,000 stage designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams (whose Broadway credits include My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, King and I), not much happens despite a lot happening. 

Little Lotus (PeiJu Chien-Pott) is the daughter of Grandmaster Lone Peak (David Patrick Kelly), who runs a secret sect in Queens, New York. While nightclubbing, she is courted by a moneyed lad who seems amiable. She splits from her father to marry the suitor and bears him fraternal twins, daughter and son (Jasmine Chiu and Ji Tuo). But it turns out the twins’ father was in cohorts with the Grandmaster’s apprentice to unlock immortality by murdering one of the babies (just go with it). The father strangles his newborn daughter and steals away with the son. Little Lotus and her baby supposedly die but are alive in the next act to confront the ramifications of the events and retrieve the missing twin brother. Even the provided program barely aids the viewer through the puzzling plot.

Trope-errific plots and blatant archetypes shouldn’t be a problem. Think of Ka, a famously plot-driven Cirque du Soleil show where its coming-of-age narrative is only a device for elegant spectacle and immersion that elevates familiar story beats. Unfortunately, Ka this is not. The muddled mythology of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise befuddles.

The musical wants to own its tropes, the same way any opera, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller movies, and Baz Luhrmann’s visually saturated Moulin Rogue (now on Broadway) shamelessly take their heightened tropes in stride. But the clichés of “destiny” and “prophecy” grate. In the hands of the Kung Fu Panda movie writers, some script bits rake in laughs by poking fun at formula. When the master cries the cliché, “You were like a son to me,” his betrayer mockingly repeats it. But humoring its tropes does not compensate for a lack of substance, nor does its performers deliver their dialogue with conviction most of the time. 

The production does soar when it occupies itself in the wordless mysticism, particularly in ritualistic sequences trusting in patience. I was hypnotized by its opening and a procession sequence that closed Act I. But its atmospheric ambiguity also works against it. For example, the supposed water funeral of two characters and their resurrection is wondrous to behold, as they are lowered onto the center, then ascended into the air, as if floating to heaven or floating in water. But the visuals are so ambiguous that their new living status does not register for Act II. (When you leave the theatre and keep hearing plenty of people say “I thought they died, how are they alive?”,  that’s not a good sign.)

With only four songs listed, Sia’s musical numbers don’t align with the narrative momentum. They are slapped on with a “go with it” attitude to fill in for character monologues when the show can’t lean on silence to tell the story. When the first number “Lullaby” came up 20 minutes in, I scratched my head. I knew the production was advertised as a musical, yet I was barely sold on the existence of diegetic songs. It barely helps that the performers sing it amateurishly. Only “Courage,” a ballad where a mother delivers a cautionary tale to her rebellious daughter, surprised me by being gut-wrenching on its own despite the plot contrivances motivating the song.

This is a shame because the show bangs with energy in its opening before it devolves into its convolutions. Some visuals hypnotize, like suspended warriors on wires hanging like baubles, even if in a very poor man’s Cirque de Soleil style. Its projection imagery spills with some inspiration, shooting sparkles like fireflies or stimulating the ripples of water, which makes way for a visual surprise when real water sloshes onto the stage). But its obvious showcase is the physicality of the performers and epic swordplay. The movement choreography by Akram Khan and martial arts choreography by Zhang Jun respectively is hypnotic and reverential when they are allowed to be.

Shi-Zheng has stated the production was inspired by the legendary Bruce Lee’s audition video where Lee schools Americans on martial arts, a then-unknown subject in the USA, thus why he attempted an eastern-western stew in Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise to show how two cultures intermingle. However, a more thoughtful production would radiate the duality of the west and east. But the desired westernized flavor in the Queens setting gimmicks the plot rather than contributes to it. The sensual club sequences are too generic to have a distinct New York identity. Its intergenerational and west vs. east tensions are as surface-level as a young girl saying she feels suffocated by a strict household and tasting rebellious life by wearing skimpy clothes and nightclubbing (then regretting marrying outside her culture because her husband turned out to be – muhaha – evil). 

There’s also the matter of the casting. Shi-Zhang casts actors regardless of ethnicity with the intention of unifying the human experience. However, this is an example where colorblind casting exacerbates the problematics in an oriental setting. The robed white-bearded sensei-type played by a white David Patrick Kelly feels bizarre—perhaps moreso than an asian man robed in this stereotypical persona spewing clichés about prophecies and destiny written by westernized minds.

This mishmash of creative decisions results in such a half-hearted experiment. If I desired my share of kung fu entertainment in abstracted realms, I should have watched movies like Hero or House of Flying Daggers.

Dragon Spring Phoenix Rises is playing at the Shed in Manhattan Hudson Yard on 545 W 30th St, New York, NY 10001.

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