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Holler If Ya Hear Me

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 19, 2014

Holler If Ya Hear Me Book by Todd Kreidler. Lyrics by Tupac Shakur. Director Kenny Leon. Musical Staging and Choreography Wayne Cilento. Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements Daryl Waters. Scenic Design Edward Pierce. Projection Design Zachary Borovay. Costume Design Reggie Ray. Lighting Design Mike Baldassari. Sound Design John Shivers/David Patridge. Music Coordinator John Monaco. Music Director Zane Mark. Associate Choreographer Jared Grimes. Scenic Designs Based on Original Concepts David Gallo. Hair and Wig Design Greg Bazemore. Fight Direction Rick Sordelet. Cast: Saul Williams, Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh, Ben Thompson, John Earl Jelks, Joshua Boone, Dyllon Burnside, and Tonya Pinkins, featuring Tracee Beazer, Afi Bijou, Mel Charlot, Carrie Compere, Otis Cottono, Ryan Davis, Brandon Gill, Ari Groover, F. Michael Haynie, Jared Joseph, Jahi Kearse, Muata Langley, Candace Maxwell, Valentine Norton, Christina Sajous, Charlene “Chi-Chi” Smith, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Donald Webber, Jr., with Joaquina Kalukango.
Theatre: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets
Schedule: Mon 8 pm, Tues 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, Sun 7 pm.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Saul Williams, Tonya Pinkins, and Saycon Sengbloh
Photo by Joan Marcus

Tired of overly slick, sanitized, and synthetic musicals that don't deliver feelings when "feelings" will do? From that standpoint, Holler If Ya Hear Me, which just opened at the Palace, is the just breath of crisp mountain air this already-humid almost-summer needs. Assembled from the songs of Tupac Shakur, its authenticity emanates from every pore, shrieking through your ears and straight into your soul the way too many shows today are afraid of even attempting.

Shakur, who died in 1996 at age 25, made the systemic loss, disenfranchisement, and rage of urban Africa-Americans prime elements of his distinct rap hip-hop language, and they're given full, unyielding voice here. Every moment is wrested straight from depths of the oppressive and discriminatory anguish in which the characters exist, and presented with no rough edges obscured. When Shakur's lyrics spit out of the twisted mouths of the desperate characters—and everyone is desperate, and angry, about something—you're wrenched right to the edge of implosion with them as they struggle to contain the devastation.

The presence of this, so raw and uncensored, is about as edgy and uncompromising as Main Stem theatre gets these days. In the opening scene, when John (Saul Williams) is released after six years jail, there's not a stitch of optimism behind his halting recital of "My Block." He returns to his neighborhood, and we see that in the rotting dreams and inertia-driven lives of ex-girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), best bud Vertus (Christopher Jackson), and Vertus's mother (Tonya Pinkins), John has merely traded one set of bars for another. And, as he discovers trying to pursue a life, a career, and some sense of peace, breaking free of these might be even more difficult.

Director Kenny Leon, late of the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the cold facts of this place and people without letting even the intermittent moments of promise pass unscathed. Nearly every scene is awash in hopelessness, in which most of those we meet are drowning, though Leon tempers it with a bitter resignation that prevents the darkness from becoming completely depressing. The alley-echoing, chain link–heavy set (by Edward Pierce), thrown-together street costumes (Reggie Ray), and harsh lights (Mike Baldassari) and projections (Zachary Borovay) are ideal accents; and Wayne Cilento's choreography, which suavely contrasts the fluid elegance of inner dreams with the ugliness of outer realities, ranks among his best to date.

The casting, too, is firmly in line with the overall aesthetic, starting with hip-hop poet Williams, who brings a nuclear temper and short fuse to John that grant him a surprising breadth of emotion as he works to reintegrate himself with his world. Jackson and Pinkins, with no shortage of "legit" musical-theatre credits, bring shimmering polish to their portrayals that underscore how not everyone belongs where they end up. Sengbloh, Jaime Lincoln Smith as a violent young up-and-comer, Ben Thompson as the white auto repairman with epic dreams, and John Earl Jelks as a peace-minded street preacher are likewise well matched with and totally committed to their roles.

Alas, none of this is enough to fuel passable stage drama. The fundamental flaw of practically every jukebox musical is that songs not written to convey plot or illuminate characters within a single universe are unable to do so when forced. The ones that work—and that's a mighty short list, with Jersey Boys at its top—work around the problem rather than tackle it head-on, as if silently acknowledging of the limitations of the form.

What most of even the worst entries in the genre have in common, however, are songs structured as songs, which makes it possible for the shows to at least succeed on some simplistic musical and occasionally lyrical level. But rap and hip-hop come from a different, more informal tradition that communicates more with attitude (good for popping off a recording or from a heavily miced, throbbing-bass concert) than specific words melodies (needed for conveying messages in a theatrical context).

The songs in Holler If Ya Hear Me don't transmit their natural, revolutionary astringency to the scenes around them. The characters all sing with the same voice (Shakur's, of course), so interactions among two or more play as clunky monologues rather than narrative-advancing exchanges. The second-act centerpiece duet between John and Corinne, "Unconditional Love," is so dependent on form that she warbles the title words only for him to rap a response for minutes at a stretch without either connecting. And endless, recycled refrains from the meaningless masses of ensemble behind the leads at almost every juncture stop most individual declarations from hitting your heart.

Because there's so little weight to Kreidler's libretto beyond threading together musical numbers, there's no way for the final product to seem as deep as Shakur's songs do alone. There are a couple of interesting juxtapositions of joy and tragedy with the show-stopping "Thugz Mansion" and "California Love" near the end of the second act, but the book is otherwise all broad, clumsy strokes. There's roughly ten minutes of story spread across two and a half hours, no complex relationships, and characters that are either drastically imbalanced (the evening's key event is the death of a character we see for two minutes, tops) or forgotten entirely when other things come up. It's not that the action is impossible to follow, it's that there's nothing to follow.

That's where the most painful heartbreak is found with this colossal missed opportunity: that the creators' earnest desire to give the unrepresented Shakur documented a chance to be heard, and heard seriously, in the mainstream. Leon and others display real craft here, but because it doesn't extend far enough, a potentially shattering evening has no more impact than listening to The Collected Tupac Shakur on an iPod shuffle. You want to yearn for these people, and mourn their plight, but too many technical failings make that impossible. So despite its pointed and passionate shouts, Holler If Ya Hear Me can never quite holler loudly enough.

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