by Ryan Leeds
Watching Dragon Boat Racing, a limited engagement presentation that recently played Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, is similar to eating cotton candy; it’s visually appealing and provides enough instant sweetness to cure a craving, but ultimately it lacks substance.
The production can neither be categorized into traditional musical theater nor dance, though it incorporates elements of both with its sprawling cast and pre-recorded music by Du Min. Written by Tang Dong, Dragon Boat Racing conveys (without dialogue) a sweeping love story between leading man Nian (Li Xing), a composer, and Ling (Li Yanchao), the object of his affection. Their shared romance becomes complicated when Nian’s father—prior to his death—requests that his son marry a different girl, Ying, (Wang Minrui) and finish the Cantonese composition, Dragon Boat Racing. To make matters even more dramatic, the trio is led by the whims of fate during the 1930s Japanese occupation of China.
Dragon Boat Racing marks the American debut of the Guangdong Song and Dance Ensemble. After premiering in its native land of China in October 2014, the production became a cultural phenomenon. Yang Donglin’s colorful costumes and lighting designers Liu Fengshu and Qin Nianfeng certainly help to create a beautiful panorama. In addition, lead director and choreographer Zhou Liya has provided her agile ensemble with some stunning dance movement. One simply wishes for brevity and a bit of editing.
The show makes way for another Chinese artistic contribution, the Shen Yun Chinese dance and music spectacular which will play the Koch Thursday, January 14 through Sunday, January 17 and will return in March for an encore performance (March 2-13). It is an annual New York staple that, much like Dragon Boat Racing (which at the final performance garnered multiple stage bows and standing ovations), is sure to find its fans. For the casual observer, Dragon Boat Racing is an enjoyable affair. A finicky patron of the arts might be happier sailing in different waters.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.