I have to admit, before I start this article, that I am a bit out of practice. Out of practice of being an audience member for a Broadway play that is. It has been some time since I have seen a play and a lot has changed since the time when I would frequent the midtown theatres and second rate off-off Broadway shows on Long Island. So, feeling a bit out of touch with the grandiose world of Broadway, I made my way downtown to the Broadway Theatre to see the preview of Bombay Dreams.
Back story: Bombay Dreams is the story of a young man living in the slums of Bombay who dreams of becoming a Bollywood star to save his family’s home from destruction. Exceedingly simple plot, which I thought would grow into a predictable but endearing story. The plot includes all of the predictable twists, including romance, fame, conflict of interests and morals etc. Obviously this set up has enough leeway to prove itself either a disaster or a smash hit. Production by Andrew Lloyd Weber gave me much of the same ambivalence, with a wonderful hit like Phantom of the Opera, one of my favorite musicals, and another miraculously long-running demon of a musical, the ever-infamous, Cats. So up to the point of the big opening number I was both excited and wary.
Akaash, the main character played by Manu Narayan enters and addresses the audience to prepare them for the “big opening number” (“Salam Bombay”). I assume that this little break of the fourth wall was suppose to set up the premise of the spectacle of Bollywood that the play was proposing to emulate and preparing the audience for the joking manner in which the play would repeatedly refer to itself. Unfortunately the chosen words of the script are poor. It was this that I feel was the ultimate downfall of a promising play.
The opening number was, to say the least, contrived. But there were a few redeeming values, that remained the strengths of the musical until the final exhausting curtain calls. The costumes were absolutely fabulous and ridiculous in a most endearing way, reminiscent of Bollywood flamboyance. The staging, lighting and set design are also fabulous. My area of expertise (if you can call it that) in the theatre is production, so from a technical standpoint Bombay Dreams is impeccable. The set boasts a revolving center stage, fountain and a Les Miserables barricade-esque slum contraption that is lower from the ceiling and sits diagonally across the stage. The lighting includes subtle moments as well as cheesy Bollywood flare and Broadway spotlighting for the emotional solos. Although it might sound a bit much, the overall effect is stunning.
But perhaps the most exciting element of the play is the music. The music is both true to Broadway and respectful of the strong ethnic element of the play. The cast, mostly American and British vocalist, obviously trained for the stage, does a surprisingly good job with the vocal acrobatics of Indian music that are threaded throughout the score, and sometimes prominent in the songs. There were also a few cast members who were clearly familiar with Indian style music and their strong vocal range and ability added an authenticity to the music. However, I can’t say as much for the rather pathetic lyrics. Often cheesy and nearly always predictable, the lyrics were only a hair shy of abhorrent.
The direction was decent but the character development severely lacking. This leads me to ask whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the actors. The romantic couple, Akaash and Priya, have a complete lack of chemistry on stage. The only characters that were believable and fully developed were Sweetie, a eunuch and best-friend of Akaash, played by Sriram Ganesan; and Shanti, Akaash’s grandmother, played by Madhur Jaffrey. Perhaps the most disturbing thing was my lack of interest in any of the main characters. Most of the main characters evoked no emotion either way, and Narayan truly made me embarrassed for him several times (flat notes and a hideous choice to do “the worm”, very poorly, in one of the ensemble songs).
The overall feeling I was left with after an exhausting amount of curtain calls in an attempt to extricate a standing ovation from the audienceambivalence. The show was most definitely extravagant and over the top, it was trying very hard to emulate Bollywood, but it somehow fell short. There was a definite attempt by the play to poke fun at itself, and attempt that failed. The play was fun, it was aesthetically pleasing but I found it somewhat disappointing. Maybe I have been watching too many independent films, or maybe I truly am just out of the Broadway loop, but for a play that has been proclaimed a “smash hit” for two years running in London, I expected more than flashy costumes and a good score, but that could just amount to the complexities of British humor. I can’t say it was great theatre, but it was enjoyable in that mindless, fun entertainment sort of way. I enjoyed the majority of it, but definitely won’t be seeing it again. My advise: go see this play if you are in the mood to be entertained by flash song and dance, colorful lights and costumes, not if you are jaded and seeking thought provoking wit. Stars: 2.75