This year’s Canadian Children’s Opera Company main stage performance is The Monkiest King. It’s from the team of Marjorie Chan and Alice Ping Yee Ho who collaborated most successfully to create another highly successful Western/Chinese fusion piece; The Lesson Of Da Jee. The inspiration for this one is the antics of Sun Wukong, the mischievous and arrogant Monkey King in the Chinese classic Journey to the West.
The piece frames episodes from Journey to the West with a prologue and epilogue in which a young boy falls asleep after getting lost in a museum near a giant monkey and, presumably, dreams he becomes The Monkiest King. His mischievous antics almost lead to tragedy until he is redeemed and brought to see the error of his ways by Kwanyin, the goddess of mercy. Along the way there are set pieces with large choruses to show off the various choirs of the CCOC, a rather fine dance sequence, featuring dancer Xi Yi, and some linking narrative. It makes for an interesting 60 minutes that seemed to work for a packed and very much “all ages” audience.
The sets, blocking and choreography, by the team of Nina Lee Aquino, Camellia Koo and Emily Cheung, are all well thought out so that the scenes flow smoothly and attractively despite the need to move large numbers of choristers; some of whom are very young and not as stage savvy as their elders. The music, scored for a mixture of western and Chinese instruments is strongest in the orchestral and choral writing. Some of the numbers for the most mature chorus are really rather fine. The solo writing has to compromise for immature voices and I think there was an attempt to inject some Chinese tonalities into the writing for the title character but it didn’t really quite come off. The best vocal singing ended up coming from Ana Sophia Ferrer-Krystos as Kwanyin. Not a big surprise as girls voices mature earlier and hers is beginning to sound like an adult singer. Conor Ross managed quite well as the Jade Emperor; a role that would likely go to a bass in an adult show, with a decent amount of gravitas. Lucas Drubes exuberant acting impressed in the title role but musically I’m not so sure; partly at least because I’m not entirely sure what he was being asked to do. Teri Dunn conducted and got great work out of the orchestra and pretty much kept things together on stage too. No mean feat in the circumstances.
Smart choice of theatre too. It was in the Lyric at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. It’s a really nice medium sized theatre; much more comfortable than Harbourfront Centre, and given the subject matter why not go to North York where there is every chance of attracting a new audience for a work based on a Chinese classic.
All in all, it’s a good show. The concept is smart and the music and libretto are well tailored to the forces available. The staging works and it shows off what the CCOC can do best. Today was the second of only two public performances so if you didn’t go I’m afraid it’s done.