A lot of expense and effort have gone into “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” the plus-size kung fu musical that opened Thursday at the very plus-size 120-foot-tall McCourt venue at The Shed in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. There’s a $650,000 stage (designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams) whose center recedes to become a shallow pool of water for no good reason whatsoever. There are seizure-inducing lighting effects (by Tobias G. Rylander) and “The Matrix”-meets-Studio 54 costumes (by Montana Levi Blanco) and aerial effects that are cool enough but seem like a regional-theater version of Cirque du Soleil.
Director Chen Shi-Zheng has conceived this nearly two-hour production as a spectacle, but the show moves turgidly between set-pieces without ever gathering any visual or narrative momentum. The problem starts with the wisp of a story (by “Kung Fu Panda” writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger), about two battling kung fu factions in that renowned center of the martial arts, Flushing, Queens.
There’s talk of a prophesy involving two twins, whom we first see as dolls with glowing plastic globe heads (one pink and one blue) and later as 18-year-old separated-at-birth twins (Jasmine Chiu and Ji Tuo) destined to either battle each other to the death or unite to restore balance to the universe. Or something like that. The mythology here is about as thin as the fabric panels that keep dropping from the ceiling to hide wired-up performers.
There’s also a score by Sia — or at least a mish-mash of the pop star’s anthemlike ballads, many of which are piped in over loudspeakers rather than sung by the cast, which is probably just as well since their vocal talent, sadly, seldom matches their athleticism in the kung fu/dance routines. None of the tunes actually advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the stick-figure characters. And if you were expecting the performers to be swinging from a chandelier in a Pink-like nod to Sia’s biggest chart-topper, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
You’ll also be disappointed by the choreography, which comes in two flavors: martial arts (conceived by Zhang Jun), which is occasionally engaging even though none of the punches or kicks ever actually land and there are no aerial effects to send any of the fighters truly flying; and movement (by Akram Khan), which ranges from lackluster to virtually nonexistent in multiple disco-set scenes where the ensemble seems to be enacting the truly random dance moves of a crowd of strangers.
In the end, “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise” plays like the director’s cut of a badly dubbed Hong Kong kung fu movie, where the story is unintelligible and there are long lulls between the scenes with genuine action and visual appeal. And in live theater, alas, there is no fast forward.