"The Forbidden Phoenix is an ambitious mashup of cultures"

by COLIN THOMAS on APR 11, 2011 at 10:23 AM - Georgia Straight

 

The Forbidden Phoenix is fantastic—in spurts. It’s rare to see a show that runs this hot and cold. Then again, you don’t often see shows that are so ambitious.

Like the Lower Mainland, and especially Richmond, where this musical is playing at the Gateway Theatre, The Forbidden Phoenix is an invigorating mashup of cultures. Marty Chan, who wrote the book, has chosen the mythical Chinese figure Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, as his hero. But, for his semi-simian protagonist, Chan makes up a new story, a colourful metaphor for the immigrant experience.

Starving in his homeland, the Monkey King travels through a magic waterfall to the West, where he arrives in Terminal City. An evil engineer named Horne is trying to release the Iron Dragon from Forbidden Mountain. But the Phoenix, who lives on the mountain, knows that Horne’s greed will destroy the beauty of her natural world. This all refers to pioneering Canadian railway executive William Van Horne, of course, and, as in Canadian history, Chinese workers die explosive deaths in The Forbidden Phoenix. Western theatre is seldom so robustly and accessibly symbolic, so the broad strokes of this entertainment are refreshing.

Robert Walsh’s music is also a wild, and mostly successful, amalgam of styles. Under Allen Stiles’s direction, the excellent 10-piece orchestra—which includes local luminaries Ed Henderson on guitar and Peggy Lee on cello—plays a score that blends the intervals and ornamentations of Peking opera with the show-biz sensibilities of Broadway.

 

Michael Dufays, who plays the Monkey King, is fantastic. The guy’s got a black belt in tae kwon do and his moves in the fight sequences are spectacular. He knows how to colour a song with his warm tenor voice. And he delivers an acting performance of real emotional depth. Talk about a skill set. Playing the Phoenix, Kazumi Evans also impresses with her singing and dancing skills; the combat sequence in which she fights the Monkey King is one of the highlights of the show. Grace Fatkin’s rich soprano is the vocal equivalent of the richly brocaded robe she wears to play the oppressive Empress Dowager, and she walks with a sway that drips with seductive evil.

Unfortunately, Alvin Tran, who plays Laosan, the Monkey King’s son, had pitch problems on opening night. Although it’s not his fault, Damon Calderwood (Horne) has to perform a couple of bad rap numbers that appear, like boorish guests, in the score. Yes, the lack of sophistication in these numbers might reflect the character, but the results are still boring musically. Some of the physical comedy, including Horne’s dance of strutting sexuality, falls flat. Not all of the songs advance the story and the scenes sometimes tread water.

It all looks great, though. Scenographer Robert Gardiner contributes three tall towers on which giant Chinese-style scrolls are raised and lowered to create various backdrops. And Ereca Hassell’s lighting is appropriately melodramatic.

Very little theatre reflects the Lower Mainland’s cultural diversity.The Forbidden Phoenix does, and that part is exciting.

"[Michael Dufays] delivers an acting performance of real emotional depth".