Kimbirdlee and Jonathan Fadner of Common Man Musicals (CMM) are bringing a grown-up version of their new production, The Monkey King, back to Roosevelt Island’s Howe Theatre next weekend, August 3-5. The four-performance run will be the show’s last stop before making an appearance at Queens Theater August 12.
There was a buzz going around the community when The Monkey King premiered in May. The talented wife and husband duo developed their original script and score through the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance’s children’s theater last year. Those who attended the performances were treated to a spectacular presentation, embellished with an artful set, beautiful costumes, and a storyline shaped around delightfully catchy musical numbers. People could be heard snapping and humming the tunes for days to come. In fact, “Everyone Knows You Don’t Mess with the Monkey King” and “You Just Got Your Butt Kicked By a Girl” were two favorite and oft repeated lines around my house.
The new incarnation of this production, played by an adult cast of professionally trained actors – including Kimbirdlee as the title character – and directed by Steven Eng, promises to deliver on a whole different level.
Pared down to a minimalist set, and with a handful of versatile performers playing different roles, the script and the story are illuminated in new ways. The musical numbers have also been expanded to include more vocal lines, as the vocal range of adults is broader than that of children.
“Rhythmically and harmonically it’s become more complicated and richer,” said Kimbirdlee.
In this production, the storytelling takes center stage. “Any single technical choice can just take forever, and can eat up so much of the rehearsal time, when quite frankly, the acting and singing needs to take precedence,” says Eng of the decision to scale back lighting and set design.
The Monkey King is a modern take on a 16th Century Chinese legend about a minor but beloved character from the 700-page epic novel Journey to the West. Born from a magical stone, the Monkey King fights his way to immortality.
The young playwrights thought it would be interesting to give the legend a new twist. “What if,” asks Kimbirdlee, “the Monkey King was born a girl?”
Co-creator Kimbirdlee Fadner plays the title character in The Monkey King.
“It’s all about what you can do when you take something that is such a masculine story – it’s all about this monkey just fighting his way into heaven,” explained Jonathan. ”When it’s a guy you see it one way. Then all of a sudden it’s a girl and you have to ask different questions. When we were doing ‘Fight Like A Girl’ with the kids, at first they would say, ‘Girls can’t fight.’ So you wondered, where did this get ingrained into your brain so fast? And that’s what [The Monkey King] is trying to do, make you talk about these things. And maybe, if you can have a conversation about them, maybe you can change things.”
The story takes place in the realm of fantasy. The characters are monkeys, fish, and sea dragons, characteristics which, in this version, are shown through the acting rather than costumes. The script implores its actors to use their full range and sparks their powers of expression. These skilled actors assume nothing about the audience’s attention span – each moment is an opportunity to invest, to go big, and keep the audience in suspense for whatever will unfold in the next moment. The actors have an incredibly fun time exploring the script, and one can’t help but be infected by that delightful mood.
While the darker moments of the story feel more menacing in this production than they did in the children’s version, the script has not changed. “I think that’s what the actors are able to bring,” said Jonathan. “Those are the things you would say to the kids; you would tell them to try it a certain way. But sometimes it’s beyond what they can grasp at their age.”
“Which is ironic,” added Kimbirdlee, “because on the playground that’s how they act.”
For fight scenes, the team chose to stick with a highly stylized approach. “We didn’t ever want realistic fighting in it,” explains Jonathan. “The fighting is like a comic book. It gives you the impression of it, and you know it’s happening, but at the same time, you never think those aren’t storytellers telling you a story on the stage. You never think, ‘I’m watching two people in a real sword fight.’ You think, ‘I’m reading this comic book and someone is showing me this story as we go along.’ Which I always find, as actors, is a more fun way… In theater we can never compete with movies and with TV. So, better not to try.”
The staging with a professional cast is the next step in what its creators hope will be a long – and evolving – life for The Money King. “The purpose is to see what this is, and can be,” said Eng. “To see if the clarity of what they’re trying to say is actually coming through?”
“The idea of the show isn’t even a year old. So, in the life of a production, it’s very young,” said Jonathan. Although he says he may revise the play further, he plans to let the actors dictate where and how. “At this stage of the production, if there’s something that I’m unsure about, I would probably let it go before I do anything. We have to give the actors a chance to find it and ask those questions first, before I go in and change it. If the actors don’t understand what’s going on here, then that helps you as a writer, to think, ‘I’ve been asking myself that same question.’ Then you need to find an answer for it, because obviously, if you don’t have an answer for it, then the audience is going to be asking that same question.”
The CMM creative team also features choreographer Francine Espiritu, Lighting Designer Andrew Trent, and Co-Music Director Yan Li. Performances are located at Howe Theater, 548 Main Street, August 3-5, with 8pm showings every night and a matinee August 4 at 2pm. Tickets are $18.