Andrew Lloyd Webber's Production of A R Rahman's Bombay Dreams Music by A R Rahman. Lyrics by Don Black. Book by Meera Syal, Thomas Meehan. Based on an Idea by Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Steven Pimlott. Choreography by Anthony van Laast & Farah Khan. Scenery and costume design by Mark Thompson. Sound design by Mick Potter. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Music director/dance music arranger James Abbott. Original additional music arrangements by Christopher Nightingale. Music coordinator Michael Keller. Musical supervision, orchestrations, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Paul Bogaev. Starring Manu Narayan, Anisha Nagarajan, Ayesha Dharker, Sriram Ganesan, Tanvir Gopal, Marvin L. Ishmael, Deep Katdare, Neil Jay Shastri, Jolly Abraham, Mueen Jahan Ahmad, Aaron J. Albano, Celine Alwyn, Anjali Bhimani, Shane Bland, Gabriel Burrafato, Wendy Calio, Tiffany Michelle Cooper, Sheetal Gandhi, Krystal Kiran Garib, Tania Marie Hakkim, Dell Howlett, Suresh John, Ian Jutsun, Miriam Laube, Aalok Mehta, Ron Nahass, Michelle Nigalan, Zahf Paroo, Danny Pathan, Bobby Pestka, Kafi Pierre, Sarah Ripard, Rommy Sandhu, Darryl Semira, Lisa Stevens, Kirk Torigoe, James R. Whittington, Nicole Winhoffer, and Madhur Jaffrey.
If you're suffering from a ravenous hunger for rich, intelligent musical theatre, you're unlikely to be satiated by Bombay Dreams. But while this Technicolor patchwork quilt of a musical at the Broadway Theatre is hardly an example of masterful craftsmanship, it's still the most satisfying new musical of the Broadway season.
In most other years, it would be little more than a curiosity trampled on by bigger, more forbidding shows. With its main competition this season being lackluster star vehicles, over-inflated puppet shows, and bewildering, bothering, but not bewitching exercises in revisionist literary history, Bombay Dreams takes the lead simply by being more than the sum of its parts.
Not that its attempts ever seem effortless. Everyone strains to hold the whole thing together, and they don't always succeed, particularly in the relatively thin second act. But it's difficult not to smile, laugh, and ultimately be entertained by this mildly spicy tribute to the Indian movie musical; whatever your level of familiarity with Bollywood films, Bombay Dreams still works, even if primarily on the most basic of levels.
For that success, and for the show's solidly "Broadway" feel, some credit must be given to Thomas Meehan. The Tony-winning librettist behind Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray was brought in to help Meera Syal whip her book for the show (which originally opened in London in 2002) into shape for the Broadway run, and he's done a decent job. The final version lacks almost all fat, but is also fairly short on meat.
That doesn't stop it from successfully telling its lightweight story about Bombay tour guide Akaash (Manu Narayan), who rises from the depths of the Paradise slum to become a Bollywood superstar. He gets there with the help of Priya (Anisha Nagarajan), an aspiring independent filmmaker planning a movie about her fiancé, Vikram (Deep Katdare), a lawyer who represents Bombay's underprivileged. Priya helps Akaash get his start by hijacking the entertainment at the Miss India Pageant, where he meets the glamorous film actress Rani (Ayesha Dharker), who insists he co-star in her next film.
Akaash rockets to fame, but turns his back on his grandmother Shanti (Madhur Jaffrey), his friends in Paradise, and his promise to make enough money to buy the slum to prevent it from being bulldozed. He soon must decide whether money, fame, and Rani are more attractive to him than his family, friends, and budding relationship with Priya.
Contrived? Sure. That's part of the point: Syal and Meehan have adopted many typical Bollywood plots and conventions for their story, both paying homage to them and tweaking their inclusion. Using the plot contrivances for humor in this way helps anchor the show, and the characters' occasional comments on the plot twists' resemblances to Bollywood films are all cleverly integrated. As the story begins to resemble the one Priya devises for her film (also called Bombay Dreams), whether you're watching the story unfolding live - or the film version made of it - is left ambiguous. That's as complex as Bombay Dreams gets.
The production, however, is beautifully realized, with Steven Pimlott's energetic direction bringing all the elements nicely together. Hugh Vanstone's lights are well done, but are overshadowed by Mark Thompson's lavish (and numerous) sets and costumes. They render, in vibrantly colorful theatrical terms, the Bollywood-style atmosphere the story requires; Thompson's designs for the film-within-the-play musical numbers are especially successful in the way they embrace almost-tacky glitz and glamour.
Those musical numbers could hardly be more authentic: A R Rahman, an esteemed composer of Indian film music (including the Oscar-nominated Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India), has provided the show's music. And if a few songs are familiar from his film compositions, musical director James Abbott and orchestrator Paul Bogaev do some superb work helping Rahman fit them seamlessly into the show. Don Black provided the lyrics; they're serviceable, but not particularly distinguished. The Rahman/Black score includes a couple of attractive plot songs, like "Love's Never Easy" and "Hero," but one power ballad ("How Many Stars?") sounds like something Bombay Dreams producer Andrew Lloyd Webber might have appropriated for one of his own shows.
The large group numbers, which employ some two dozen performers, are nothing short of spectacular. In the "Salaa'm Bombay" opener, the extravagant "Lovely, Lovely Ladies" and "Bhangra" for the Miss India Pageant, and the full-out Bollywood showstoppers "Shakalaka Baby" and "Chaiyya Chaiyya," Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan provide the season's most invigorating choreography.
The tireless souls dancing it are the most compelling performers in Bombay Dreams. Narayan can easily keep up with them, and sings well, but is a somewhat by-the-numbers actor. Nagarajan is much the same, an appealing and talented performer without the charisma necessary to sparkle in her role. Dharker does slightly better, with several juicier opportunities, and Katdare and Jaffrey have a number of nice acting moments. Sriram Ganesan turns in the show's most engaging performance as Sweetie, a eunuch harboring an eternal torch for Akaash. He possesses the stage presence most of the others lack, a terrific voice, and expert comic timing.
While Bombay Dreams would benefit from a few more exciting performances like Ganesan's, the other performances are all acceptable. But as they - and the material - aren't much more, that might mean you come out of Bombay Dreams with little more than an appreciation of Bollywood films you didn't have earlier, and even the best of this show is somewhat evanescent. Regardless, Bombay Dreams provides two and a half hours of entertaining diversion in a spring musical theatre climate needing exactly that.