A pied piper has been at work at Utah Ballet, putting together a folk tale Chinese style and making a cast of 100 (including 80 children) perform on cue. Actually, make that two pied pipers - the Monkey King on stage and choreographer/designer/music man John Mead almost everywhere else.
Mead has reworked his "Monkey King" to advantage since its debut in 1986. If memory serves, the updated version is sharper, clearer and more purposeful. This charming full-length piece appears to be authentically Oriental in its legends and style.It's clever, often funny, sometimes eerie, well-paced (though sometimes a sequence with the children goes on a little too long) and holds the attention of all. Although there were many children in the audience, no squirming or fussing was heard. And while there's no Christmas connection, this appeals as a good show to increase holiday cheer and merriment.
Michael Cheng, the Monkey King, has the right qualities of person-ality, gymnastics and dancing ability to make a brave and resourceful folk hero. Monkey Kings always prevail, so you know the outcome from the beginning; but that doesn't keep you from cheering this fine fellow on in his adventures.
Malcolm Lee narrates the story, as the Monkey King basks in the pleasures of Flower-Fruit Mountain, becomes discontented and seeks one who can teach him how to live forever. For eating forbidden fruit, he is imprisoned in a stone box by Buddha for 500 years (realistically shown on stage, though fortunately not for the full time).
He's finally released on condition that he will escort the monk Tong Tsung and his companions, the adorable Pigsy with a fat tummy (Michael Bullock) and the pilgrim Sandy (Jef Horne) on a quest to India for Buddhist scriptures. His many adventures revolve around conflict with the beautiful and evil White Bone Demon, stylishly and powerfully danced by Jennie Creer.
Where do the children fit in? Almost everywhere. The villages are full of them, and there are dozens of brown, masked monkeys of all sizes writhing about. In one of the prettier scenes, some of them are white cranes, en pointe, at the river's edge, and the underwater scene has a big assortment of sea creatures. And there's a great battle with the Demon and her attendants, where they form a hollow square and mark the rhythm with sticks.
When the Monkey King engineers a storm in the desert to rescue his friends, he flies on a cloud chariot high in the air, and the children are dancing raindrops who soon fill the stage with a river. Throughout, everyone appears to be having a genuinely good time, yet within the bounds of really performing and pantomiming, with the women of Utah Ballet leading the way.
Dianna Cuatto makes a flashy Dragon Queen, spurring on a rambunctious dragon with an elaborate lion's head. And Mead's musical collage, assembled from various Asian and Indonesian sources, fits well throughout, augmented by suitable synthesized noise effects.
With this show, the Hayes/Christensen Theatre has a chance to show off its technical capabilities more fully than usual, and they are impressive. Its spacious size holds a big production comfortably, and while lighting possibilities are not exploited to the fullest, there are many magical moments. Technical aspects of the show seemed to go off without a hitch on opening night.