A trip with this 'Monkey' is energetic and dazzling

"Monkey: Journey to the West" might not be for everyone, but if you're drawn to it at all, you should find it thrilling and dynamic.

Those who respond at all to "Monkey: Journey to the West," now playing at the College of Charleston Sottile Theater, are likely to love it.

This exuberant, dynamic and creative collaboration between director and author Chen Shi-Zheng, visual artist Jamie Hewlett and composer Damon Albarn (best known as the lead singer for the celebrated rock band Blur) is unlike anything else around.

"Monkey" combines Buddhist philosophy, martial arts, spectacular acrobatics and high-tech animation with a score that seems to be made up of equal parts Chinese opera, minimalist drone and '70s-style prog-rock.

I recommend it to fantasy and sci-fi aficionados, those with an interest in just how far you can push the human body (how amazingly strong and agile some of our young people have made themselves), and to children of all ages.

"Monkey" is based on a celebrated Chinese novel but is best understood as a series of tableaux. At times the staging calls to mind a gigantic aquarium stocked with a wide variety of colorful fish, all of them moving very quickly; at other times "Monkey" seems the all-time apotheosis of Saturday morning television.

Wires and hardened muscles permit the players to fly, twirl, climb up and down poles and dive through all sorts of improbable somersaults. It is all quite dazzling.

I wouldn't call the music an afterthought, exactly. Certainly Albarn's first voyage into more-or-less classical forms is more interesting than anything Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello or Billy Joel have come up with when they tried on the role of Serious Composer.

I will admit that I'd rather listen to Blur, however.

Indeed, despite the many excellences of "Monkey," and they are very real indeed, I confess that it didn't mean very much to me personally, and I made it through only about 40 minutes.

Then again, I couldn't stand "Star Wars," went to "The Matrix" only because I was dragged to it by my son, and fled in horror from the one and only circus I ever attended as a child.

Tastes are funny things, and my own are highly idiosyncratic. In any event, it is quite possible to admire something yet not enjoy it very much, and that's the way I felt about "Monkey."

Pianist's first American visit

Heloisa Fernandes is a wonderfully versatile and inventive pianist. I heard her at the Simons Center Recital Hall at the College of Charleston on Monday night, and you still have two chances to catch up with her tonight, at 7 and 9. But move fast, for her initial program was all but sold out, and word of mouth ought to ensure that she never plays to an empty seat again.

Fernandes was presented as a jazz artist, as part of the Wachovia Jazz Series, but she could just as easily be described as an impressionist or a songwriter or, better, as a musical narrator who tells stories with her fingers.

She seems open to all influences, from Heitor Villa-Lobos and Caetano Veloso, fellow Brazilians whose music she played, as well as creators as diverse as Maurice Ravel, Isaac Albeniz and Keith Jarrett.

This was the first time Fernandes had ever played in the United States ("I am loving to be here," she said softly from the stage, in charmingly accented English), although her recordings have preceded her. A disc called "Fruto" already has been released, to high praise, on the Maritaca label, and another album is said to be on its way.

Fernandes lives in Sao Paolo, a vast city that sometimes seems to be on the verge of replacing Rio de Janeiro as the musical capital of Brazil. How little North America knows about the continent to our south!

I lived in Caracas when I was a boy, and I'm always amazed by the comments I hear from my friends — highly sophisticated people, who can find their way all around Europe and may have also visited Asia or Australia — who seem to think that the dimly understood South America is made up entirely of romantic revolutionaries and reactionary generals.

Perhaps the recent emphasis on what is now called "world music" will open some minds to the remarkable, and remarkably diverse, cultures that are only a few hours away from us.

In any event, Fernandes is a terrific ambassador and the Spoleto Festival USA should be proud to have introduced her to our land. Her music is expansive but always organic, growing naturally and without ostentation from melodic cells that she presents at the beginning of her pieces.

She has an accomplished technique but never uses it to show off. To the contrary, one has the sense that every note she plays is there for purely musical reasons. Her endings are especially interesting — they usually come as a surprise to the listener but then settle in and seem not only plausible but inevitable.

Luminous and lyrical, Fernandes is beyond categorization. She is herself, and I'll always be interested in any music she cares to explore.