Hip-Hop High: The Musical
The New York International Fringe Festival
If you expect that Driving the Saudis, Jayne Amelia Larson’s one-woman show at the New York International Fringe Festival, will be a sumptuous investigation of the extravagance associated with some of the richest people in the world, boy are you right. Larson, who once spent 50 days chauffeuring a high-ranking princess of the Saudi royal family and her coterie through Los Angeles, has filled her 80-minute outing with countless reminiscences of the glorious and gaudy excesses of a group of people that drop $100 bills the way most of us spend quarters. From all-day shopping trips on Rodeo Drive to bizarre special requests (at one point, the family wants Larson to buy 50 identical upscale bras costing $400 each), Larson had a front-seat view of a world of luxury most of us can’t imagine, and shares it with a glimmering, awestruck sense of humor.
What makes this something closer to a real play, however, is Larson’s even greater interest in the social implications of the Saudis’ spending and their lives. These are people who control most of the world’s oil and think nothing of demanding endless car trips in fuel-hungry limousines — thus lining their pockets even as they pay out some $20 million in less than two months. And though the Saudi women live like queens, they’re not treated that way — they are considered true property to men, and may be dumped and left with nothing at any time if a prince decides he wants a younger wife who can provide him with more children. (Some of the royals have dozens.)
This juxtaposition of the conflicting ways the women are treated creates a surprisingly potent atmosphere for reflecting on both worldwide gender attitudes, and the United States’s own complicity in enabling this treatment. Yet Larson rarely preaches — she’s willing to let the facts speak for themselves, which they frequently do with unsettling clarity. Director Charlie Stratton has kept the production simple — the shopping bags that slowly begin crowding Larson off the stage are a nice touch — but is perhaps too concerned with the show’s multimedia elements. At least at the performance I attended, the slides, video sequences, and especially the sound system were not particularly cooperative, which too often made it difficult to hear or focus on what Larson was saying.
Her stories need no help. From her vivid descriptions of the Saudis’ private plane (a 747!) and elaborate security detail to their occupation of four different hotels (one room at one is devoted strictly to the tea service) and their ways of meeting their personal requirements (at one point, Larson must clean out L.A. of all bottles of a Nair-like hair remover), Larson spins a fascinating saga in words and simple staging that speak volumes about a complicated people. The final moments of the show, in which Larson realizes and visualizes the position she held in their esteem in the time she spent driving them, are haunting reminders that however far America may have to go in certain areas, it remains a place of equal opportunity unlike any other in the world.
VENUE #16: The SoHo Playhouse
Hip-Hop High: The Musical
I wish I could tell you exactly what happens in Hip-Hop High: The Musical — and why — but I can’t. I must confess that this show, with a threadbare book by Z-Man (as he’s billed) and Cynthia Topps, and music and lyrics by Z-Man, seems designed for those whose appreciation of stage and film dance spectacles does not extend beyond High School Musical and You Got Served (respectively): It pays no particular heed to traditional notions of plot and character development, let alone common sense. I suppose if you want to see a group of attractive young people grooving for no particular reason it’s acceptable enough, but aren’t such things freely available on MTV and YouTube?
As far as I could tell, the titular learning institution is something like a High School of the Urban Performing Arts, where the kids from “crews” to win competitions with such rival schools and win trips to the career wonderland of Los Angeles. The newest arrival is Drew, a refugee from Chicago whose family is trying to start anew after his brother’s brutal gang-related death. Drew is apparently a quite talented “go it alone” type, but when he witnesses a bodega hold-up that ends in a murder, he has to learn to work with his friends and family instead of against them so he can realize his full potential — and stay alive.
Or something — the show’s myriad confused elements make it difficult to tell. For example, the first song does not occur until the fourth scene, though the bodega robbery and a tense scene from Drew’s home life are shown before it and would seem logical choices for musicalization. (Throughout, ostensibly major characters vanish for scenes at a time while minor ones receive disproportionate focus; Drew’s sister and mother are vivid nonentities who later become important as if by accident.) The police hound and threaten Drew incessantly over the crime, even though they have proof he wasn’t involved — but a character directly involved with another robbery with the same miscreants gets off scot-free. And the real villain of the piece is revealed in a single sentence of dialogue (and dealt with in maybe five), with nary a clue dropped in up until that point of his involvement with, uh, whatever it is he’s involved with.
Oh yes, and at one point, Drew lies on the floor for no reason and imagines a full-scale production number called “Snitch” — set in an actual gymnasium — that is projected on the wall behind him. This last part is at least partially explainable: According to press materials, Z-Man has been trying for years to make all this into a movie. “Snitch” suggests that he’s already partially succeeded. But in terms of making a viable — or even comprehensible — stage musical, the go-nowhere songs and half-watt dances (from a bewildering six choreographers) that fill this production suggest he hasn’t yet come close.
VENUE #7: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets