Dare to hop on the R train, though, and you just might reach a place shining as brightly – and possessing just as much promise for helping you unearth your heart’s deepest desires. Or so surmises playwright Charles Mee, whose new show Queens Boulevard (the musical), playing as part of the Signature Theatre Company’s season devoted to him, makes it hard to disagree. It also casts that bustling street in a far more magical and satisfying light than real life can manage.
The first step, however, is to not be fooled by the presence of the “M” word. While the show has no shortage of singing and dancing, the title is at best an ironic twist on traditional expectations.
Mee based the script on Kottayan Tampuran’s play The Flower of Good Fortune, and constructed it from a diverse catalog of works ranging from Indian and Japanese sources to Homer, James Joyce, and several Queens-concerning blogs. The songs encompass everything from Indian showstoppers and Japanese ballads to ‘70s pop and Iranian and Irish folk tunes. (Frankly, I’m not sure there weren’t more musical numbers in the Signature’s last Mee outing, Iphigenia 2.0.) The choreography (by Peter Pucci) recalls a Bollywood spectacle one minute and a drunken disco the next; MetroCards even play a key role in one showstopper.
All this seeming incongruity only heightens the depiction of Queens Boulevard as America’s (and perhaps the world’s) microcosmic melting pot. With culture-clash sets by Mimi Lien and mundanely magical costumes by Christal Weatherly, the stage of Peter Norton Space often looks like its own, more ethnic version of the Crossroads of the World. As all brought together by the savvy director Davis McCallum, the show moves far more quickly, smoothly, and cinematically than traffic ever does on the titular thoroughfare.
You believe at the start, though, you’re about to be trapped in American-style commercialism: The first scene is that of a Tony & Tina-style wedding reception, complete with an intrusive and cheesy D.J., that promises a surface-skimming satire of life on the edges of New York. But soon after we celebrate the nuptials of the Indian man Vijay (Amir Arison) and his Japanese bride Shizuko (Michi Barall), the show quickly begins documenting the couple’s spiritual quests to learn the meaning of love - not for each other, but for the community around them.
Vijay’s journey begins as a search for the ideal present for his new wife: a Flower of Heaven, a purple bloom so rare that none of the local expert flower sellers have ever heard of it. But though it’s his wedding night and other matters are more pressing, he’s inspired to make a small detour for the sake of his friend Abdi (Arian Moayed), who wants someone with him when he buries his mother - and then wants someone to drink with, and someone to help him spread about the wonders of philanthropy. When Vijay doesn’t return, Shizuko sets out to find him, and learns a great deal more about herself in the process.
The closer Vijay and Shizuko get to their goals, the more conventional and less effective Queens Boulevard becomes: The final scenes are unnecessarily heavy-handed in their treatment of the central moral issue (most succinctly summed up by Abdi’s question, “If you won’t honor love, what else do you have to honor?”), and their settings in a pair of nightclubs, a jail, and even a Russian bath feel more like desperate attempts to rev up for the conclusion than they do the natural evolution of events.
But when Mee sticks to Vijay and Shizuko, the show is quite moving and, at times, genuinely beautiful. Barall has a captivating solo dance she performs with the quiet delicacy of a flower swaying in the breeze, and her whole performance springs from her bright-eyed anticipation of the future she’ll have with her husband - as soon as he returns home, that is. Arison is a magnetic Vijay, layering him with all the anxious confusion, frustration, and optimism of a young man in love but not with his love at the moment. On the outskirts, Moayed is precise and affecting as Vijay’s guide along the road to fulfillment, while Ruth Zhang is a joy as Shizuko’s mother (and sings a mean - and meanly operatic - “Dancing Queen”) and Emily Donahoe brings some much-needed fire to the fairly cold role of Vijay’s old flame, Colleen.
The wide-ranging multicultural casting ensures that nearly everyone, at some point, plays a race that is not his or her own - and in some cases, more than one. This takes a bit of getting used to, but only a bit: Mee’s world is quickly established as one in which anything - and anyone - goes, and you’re never entirely sure what you’ll find coming around the next bend. It might not be On the Town, Guys and Dolls, or West Side Story, but the mythical New York of Queens Boulevard is, in so many of its own ways, no less inviting.