Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

A Heroic Misfire: “Journey to the West” in Covina

It’s seems a most romantic story. Jeff Lowe, a board member of the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, heard Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score for their nascent musical, “Journey to the West” when he was in college, and fell in love. He found the music spoke to him, listened to it almost obsessively, spread CDs to his friends, and it became a part of the fabric of his life. The show, which was only produced once as a part of a festival of new musicals, disappeared until Lowe – ten years after that first listen – was able to pull together the cast and crew necessary to bring it to the stage.

Now “Journey to the West” is in an extremely limited run at CCPA, in association with Alchemy Theatre Company. West, who is directing, has combined a talented cast of varied experience, added the choreographic skills of Jenny Moon Shaw, costumer Aja Bell and set designers/buildiers Jonathan Daroca, Dan Malarky, Jeremy Ojeda and Jesse Runde. The show is on its feet.

The good news is the quality of his troupe. The bad news, sadly, is that these fine people’s talents cannot counteract the fact that the show itself just isn’t very strong. Add some technical glitches, and the net result is simply not ready for prime time.

The story is is based on one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and an elemental hero’s journey. Jiang-Lai, an arhat or minor god, is forced to return to earth as a human child unaware of his immortal past, and to grow up and complete a specific quest within a certain time frame if he wishes to return to the skies. In his quest he is aided by Kuan-Yin, the beautiful arhat who loves him, and thwarted by Hou-Lai, a jealous arhat who wants Kuan-Yin for himself. He gathers three acolytes – the monkey god Monkus, a boar-like demigod Tu-Bao, and the river dragon Tsunami. They also protect, or divert, him on his journey to find the sutras which will save mankind.

R. Adam Trent makes a charmingly innocent Jiang-Lai. Andrea Somera becomes a richly heart-felt Kuan-Yin. Both sing well and lead the cast in every way. Yet, here is also the underscore to the technical issues of the piece. Whereas Somera is comparatively easy to hear throughout, Trent’s mic is so placed that his lines – both spoken and sung – are often too soft. This is only made worse by the mics on the live band (particularly the guitarist), which are left way too hot and create a booming musical “underlay” which has a tendency to drown out singing and spoken lines on a regular basis. This is bad for many, but most painfully true in the case of Brian Piernat’s Monkus, who introduces himself in a hip-hop rap which looks like it might be quite clever, but nobody can hear at all.

William Crisp looks terrific and sounds even better as the menacing Hou-Lai. Paul Stuflosky is just silly enough to be the boorish Tu-Bao, and Kenny Ugwa has a wonderful time as the somewhat “iffy” helper, Tsunami. Yet, in Ugwa’s case an introductory song reminiscent of reggae ends up with no accompaniment at all (other than something going boing on occasion). This leaves both Ugwa and the chorus behind him searching for key and harmony, which is especially unfortunate given the truly ingenious visuals which accompany this moment.

In other words, the audio design credited to director Lowe needs significant overhaul, and music director Matthew Capurro – the liaison to the band – would be a large part of that as well. They should also address the blank spots between scenes: moments screaming for some sort of transition. But to just condemn the show because you have trouble hearing it properly, or it’s staged a bit choppily, would not really say all that needs saying. One still must wrestle with a couple of essential facts about the script itself.

First, Oberacker and Taylor bit off a very, very long and complex story which they have tried with only moderate success to fit to the length of a standard American musical. The result is a show which, including a standard intermission, comes in at about three hours long. Secondly, though some of the music is quite beautiful, including the tune to “Happy Little Arhat,” and “I’ve Learned Mine,” the lyrics are far too often very fast-paced patter songs which are difficult to spit out, and regularly offer up such predictable and simplistic rhythm and rhyming schemes as to be comparatively unmemorable. In the end, the show can’t really tackle all that the novel wanted to say, and tries to cram the rest into one long final musical number.

Still, there has been a lot of hard work put into producing “Journey to the West.” Shaw’s choreography proves fascinating from start to finish, and there are captivating and innovative uses of dance as incidental to the plot (especially the dancers with lanterns signaling elements of life force) which make a powerful visual statement. The chorus is good – very good – and the energy in the production is high.

Which makes a person wish they could hear it all. Which makes one wish even more that the things these talented folk have worked so hard on were more worth hearing, as written. I can empathize with Lowe falling in love with something he wants the world to see. I also empathize from experience with the syndrome – I’m sure at play here – of working on a production for long enough to become convinced it’s awesome simply because one is living inside it for so long.

Sadly, the only thing which can assist this production other than a rewrite is to at least get the sound right. Perhaps the sense that one must have the story explained at the end will be less powerful if one can hear what people are saying and singing along the way.

What: “Journey to the West” When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave, in Covina How Much: $30 and $40 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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