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The Boy Who Danced On Air

Theatre Review by David Hurst - May 25, 2017


Jonathan Raviv and Troy Iwata
Photo by Maria Baranova

Proving once again that inspired ideas for new musicals often come from the most unexpected places, Tim Rosser (music) and Charlie Sohne's (book and lyrics) The Boy Who Danced On Air at the Abingdon Theatre Company tells the love story of two teenage boys in Afghanistan through the prism of modern-day slavery and sexual exploitation. But don't be put off by this description. After all, who would have thought the story of a Victorian barber seeking revenge by slashing people's throats and letting the woman who lives below him bake his victims into meat pies would be a hit?

Inspired by the heart-wrenching, 2010 PBS Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (written by Jamie Doran and directed by Najibullah Quraishi), Rosser and Sohne's new musical is set in the dark world of bacha bazi ("boy play"), an ancient tradition wherein pre-teen boys are sold by their poverty-stricken families to wealthy men who groom them to become their ‘dancing boys'. . . and more. The boys, who perform in women's clothes for rooms full of adult men, are frequently sexual abused by their owners and typically pimped out to the audience's highest bidders who purchase them for sex following a performance. The boys continue this existence until their late teens or early twenties, depending on how quickly they mature into adult men at which point they're cast aside and replaced by younger boys.

This ancient yet repellent practice, which was banned by the Taliban and remains illegal under Afghan law, is justified by the men's professed belief this is an acceptable outlet for their sexual needs because women are revered and must be kept separate for marriage and the raising of families. To their credit, Rosser and Sohne, along with director Tony Speciale and choreographer Nejla Yatkin, have embraced the setting of The Boy Who Dances On Air but don't allow it to suffocate their story in sadness or revulsion. To be sure, audiences will need to set aside their Western sensibilities to immerse themselves in a contemporary world of exploitation, but the show's rewards are many for those willing to take the journey.


Osh Ghanimah and Nikhil Saboo
Photo by Maria Baranova

That journey centers on the young Paiman, sensitively portrayed by Troy Iwata, who is sold by his father to Jahandar, expertly brought to life by Jonathan Raviv. Iwata and Raviv starred in their roles in The Boy Who Dances On Air's world premiere last year at San Diego's Diversionary Theatre, also helmed by Speciale, and their experience is reflected here in powerful performances. Paiman's initial sadness and confusion is replaced by his growing love of dancing and dependence on Jahandar's control. Jahandar sublimates his obvious love for Paiman behind a veil of only doing what ‘tradition' dictates. He reminds Paiman he will soon have to marry him off to a woman and find a younger boy to replace him, because tradition demands it. Paiman is devastated by this turn of events and befriends Feda, a charismatic Nikhil Saboo, the dancing boy owned by Jahandar's friend, Zemar, played with a little too much sitcom schtick by Osh Ghanimah. Jahandar disapproves of Zemar's decision to allow Feda to continue dancing since he's aged out as a 'dancing boy'. But the lecherous Zemar ignores Jahandar's disdain and openly lusts after Paiman, which sends Jahandar into a rage. Meanwhile, Paiman and Feda's relationship, initially antagonistic, develops into a friendship of mutual survival. Feda dreams of going to "the city" to become a famous singer, and Paiman, dazzled by Feda's bravado, slowly realizes how dysfunctional Jahandar's obsession with him has become. Soon they've fallen in love and dream of life free from servitude that culminates in the gorgeous act one closer, "When I Have a Boy of My Own."

The second act, like most second acts, still has problems and gets bogged down in a subplot wherein Jahandar's revenge scheme involving a deactivated power plant (and embarrassing the Americans who built it) is as silly as it is distracting. Unfortunately, the power plant scheme (and its barrels of diesel fuel) provides the fulcrum on which the conclusion of The Boy Who Dances On Air turns. In addition to defying credulity it's clunky writing is unworthy of the story and score that's come before. Additionally, interspersed throughout the musical, as well as bookending it, is a character referred to as the Unknown Man in the program. Portrayed with tentativeness by Deven Kolluri, there's a reveal associated with the Unknown Man at the end of the show that will work better if the writing is sharpened. At present, it doesn't work because it's still confusing as to what's happening and who Kolluri represents.

Despite it's shocking source material, The Boy Who Danced On Air is actually a traditional musical in its writing and structure. Rosser's music astutely combines the sounds of traditional Afghan music wrapped inside a melodic score with compelling songs. Jonathan Raviv's lovely voice soars on "Kabul," "Play Your Part," and, especially, "I Can See It." Similarly, Iwata's reading of "All That I've Known" and Saboo's treatment of "Into Your Hands" are wonderful. Sohne's lyrics never cloy and have a directness that compliments Rosser's music, allowing the actors to project a welcome naturalism while singing. Iwata and Saboo are particularly impressive considering how supremely difficult the roles of Paiman and Feda must be to cast. Consider you need actors who can pass as young teenagers but can sing and dance like seasoned professionals and handle tricky subject matter without batting an eye. And the choreography, courtesy of the inventive Nejla Yatkin, is difficult. Iwata possesses a delicate sensibility that heightens Yatkin's precise footwork while Saboo's physicality is impressive. As for Raviv, considering his character as written is a bit of psychopath, it's a testament to his skills that he makes Jahandar as sympathetic as he does.

The entire company owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the show's terrific five-piece band that sounds like an orchestra of fifteen: Eylem Basaldi (violin), Ben Gallina (upright bass), David Gardos (conductor and piano), Hidayat Honari (guitar and rubab) and Philip Mayer (percussion) play Rosser's sumptuous orchestrations with polish and sensitivity. Lastly, The Boy Who Danced On Air has been beautifully designed for a production that probably had a shoestring budget. Andrea Lauer's authentic costumes and Wen-Ling Liao's sensitive lighting are particularly exceptional, while Justin Graziani's subtle sound design never detracts from the cast's touching performances. A surprising breath of fresh air, The Boy Who Danced On Air is a penetrating story of young men trapped in a tradition-bound culture who dream of a better life. It's not without its flaws, but blessed with a talented and committed cast, savvy direction, passionate dancing and a fearlessness to break boundaries, it has the power to open your eyes and pierce your heart.


The Boy Who Danced On Air
Through June 11
Abingdon Theatre Company June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 1st Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix


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