Imagine a jazz version of the children's symphonic tale "Peter and the Wolf." Next, replace the Russian folktale with a 17th-century Chinese legend about martial arts-trained Shaolin monks wreaking vengeance on their enemies. Now you have "Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America." Presented Saturday at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, this 70-minute, narrated jazz tale with choreographed martial arts was, like "Peter and the Wolf," imaginative and engaging and most notable for its score.
The score is by Brooklyn-based composer Fred Ho, who sports a "Mr. T" mid-cranial tuft of hair above a round face, and plays a mean saxophone. It is performed onstage by Ho and his Afro Asian Music Ensemble and is scored for three saxophones (tenor, alto and baritone), drums, marimba, Chinese percussion and anvil.
Since the score is written to portray the tale, it moves the story quickly, helps to identify various characters, swells at just the right moments and gives the musical equivalent of "Pow!" when someone gets kung-fu kicked and goes down. Ho himself describes the work's style of martial-arts choreography as a "highly styled living comic book." It's all done slightly tongue-in-cheek, with lots of slapstick, allusions to Jackie Chan-like moves and sequences of slow motion, which are a clear reference to kung fu movies. The performers who play the monks are a mix of martial-arts experts, dancers and gymnasts. Martial-arts choreographer Jose Manuel Figueroa makes the most of each performer's strength, be it moves from kung fu, tai chi, hapkido or Capoeria Angola (all types martial arts). Narrator Jim Yue, a New York-based actor, successfully draws out every drop of flavor from each character's lines, changing voices and mimicking the character's movements as he speaks.
Like a comic book or a popular kung fu movie, "Voice of the Dragon" is a lot of fun. Ho conceives of the work as an allegory for "the destruction and resurrection of the modern-day Asian American Movement," but that is about as significant to the performance as is the battle of good vs. evil to "Peter and the Wolf." Both have basic themes that draw from the core of the human psyche (as do most folktales and legends), but "Voice of the Dragon" is best -- and best enjoyed -- when taken at face value.