A few minutes into Friday evening’s performance at the Emerson Paramount Center, countertenor Chuanyuan Liu leaped onto a table, picked up a spray bottle, and spritzed the five craggy, mountain-shaped props that surrounded him. “Pee-pee-pee!” he trilled gleefully, as the projection screen at the back of the stage filled with digital yellow splashes.
So begins “Monkey: A Kung Fu Puppet Parable,” the newest operatic take on the 16th-century Chinese mythological novel “Journey to the West,” which itself proves that toilet humor has never been out of style. (Long story short: Those mountains were Buddha’s fingers, and that stunt gets Monkey — sometimes known as Sun Wukong or Monkey King — trapped under a mountain until a monk in need of an immortal bodyguard lets him out.)
In East Asia, “Journey to the West” has taken on many forms, much like the shape-shifting simian himself: Chinese operas, comics, animated and live-action films and TV series, video games. Here, it doesn’t get as much airtime. If someone were to try to put Monkey on a Western operatic stage, it’s not surprising that would be Cerise Lim Jacobs, founder of Boston-based White Snake Projects, whose penchant for mythology and maximalism is well-documented.
I was optimistic going into “Monkey,” which features a libretto by the Singapore-born Jacobs and music by Mexican-American composer Jorge Sosa. The two collaborated on 2019′s “I Am a Dreamer who No Longer Dreams,” a poignant and only slightly heavy-handed tale of two contrasting American immigrant experiences. My optimism was largely justified. All the ingredients had been present for a White Snake success; a mythic story with episodes of humor and profundity, several ways to tell that story, and (as usual) a strong slate of singers, with Liu perfectly cast as the mischievous Monkey.
If anything, the path of this “Journey” was a little too straightforward. Monk (tenor Dylan Morrongiello), who has been tasked with retrieving a set of sutras, gathers three disciples — first Monkey, then the repentant duo of Zhu and Sha (bass John Paul Huckle and mezzo-soprano Maria Dominique Lopez), a perpetually hungry pig and a mournful sand spirit respectively. At every juncture, various demons try to tempt them from their task, represented in this opera by the shape-shifting Mara the Demon Queen (a delightfully campy Carami Hilaire). With the power of friendship and the help of Guan Yin, the deus-ex-machina of mercy (Cristina María Castro), they complete the journey.
The original novel puts Monkey and company through dozens of trials before they reach their destination. Here, that’s condensed to four; save for one very effective sequence featuring children’s choir VOICES Boston, those sequences mostly forewent the epic’s commentary about human nature while emphasizing utopian morality play-like lessons. “It’s a metaphor for life in this world!” Castro reeled off in spectacular coloratura at one point. Not like this, it isn’t. As it said on the cover, it’s a parable.
That said, as advertised, it’s a parable with puppets, and those were unassailable. Stage director Roxanna Myhrum has a long resume in puppetry, and her expertise was an asset. Designed by Tom Lee and Chicago Puppet Studio, the puppets representing Monkey, Zhu, and Sha were gorgeous and visually dynamic. Principal puppeteers Carlos José Torres López (Monkey), Nathaniel Justiniano (Zhu), and Angela Guo (Sha) were exquisitely attuned to the contours of Sosa’s music and the vocal inflections and mannerisms of the singer representing each character. At times, Morrongiello was the only singing character at the front of the stage, but the sound balance was well-controlled, and the puppets seemed beautifully alive thanks to the work of the cross-disciplinary teams behind them.
Sosa’s score was agile and entertaining, as befits such a journey. High points included the seductive slow number sung by Hilaire as Mara in her guise as a hostess in a technicolor housecoat, a chilling sequence featuring Lopez as Sha’s humanity is tested, and a crackling vocal duel between Guan Yin and Mara that even the libretto’s clunkiest passage couldn’t totally sink. (“The critics will complain” about the long words, Jacobs playfully predicted during the post-show talk back. It’s not about avoiding long words; it’s about using syllables that sound good when sung. She’s getting there step by step.) Tianhui Ng was in the pit conducting a small chamber ensemble with a few electronic enhancements, which gave the score a mostly clean and lush read with a few threadbare spots.
The single-page program book didn’t include several members of the creative team, whom I raced to look up as soon as my phone was turned on. Chris Carcione designed the show’s many projections. The simple but striking sets came from Andreea Mincic, and costumes were from Kristen Connolly, whom I hope had as much fun designing looks for Mara as Hilaire had while wearing them.
Soloist Lawrence Chen seemed underutilized, especially in the final battle, which seemed to dispense with puppets and human dancers in favor of . . . something unclear happening onstage while 3D animated versions of the disciples whirled and scrapped with invisible enemies on every projection screen the stage could spare. It induced the same mental static as trying to watch one of those TikToks with two videos playing at the same time. If they didn’t try to do too much at one point, would it even be a White Snake show?
MONKEY: A KUNG FU PUPPET PARABLE
At Emerson Paramount Center, Sept. 22.