Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Do you remember those clackety tin mechanical toys with dozens of moveable parts, bright colors and chittering, metallic sound effects? That's something of the impression left by A. R. Rahman's enjoyable, utterly inconsequential "Bollywood" musical, "Bombay Dreams". The production is handsome and technically admirable, the cast talented and engaged, the story surprisingly compelling for its contrivance and superficiality. I can't see that this show has any importance whatsoever, but it was consistently entertaining and managed to make an evening's amusement of the whole exotic milieu of Indian cinema.
The conceit is that this show is actually the filming of a Bollywood musical about a young "untouchable" man from the slums who dreams of becoming a movie idol (and does, of course), but then has to acknowledge his origins before marrying the woman he truly loves. Of course, that's all so trite and hackneyed as to be utterly disposable, but because this is not the storyline of the musical per se, but of the Bollywood film, we have to accept that these are the conventions of the form, and that rather frees us from having to be excessively critical of the absurd level of cliché. The other value that elevates the drama above its components is the quality of the performances from all the leading roles. Attractive, talented and well-directed, the young man and his love, as well as all of those in the two worlds around them (the slums and the studio) make us actually care about the progress of their romance. And, of course, the reason for this story, as in any traditional musical, is ultimately to provide a context for the singing and dancing, which was energetic, expert and delightful.
As Akaash, the young man with a dream, Sachin Bhatt is fresh and thoroughly charming. He has a good singing voice and more importantly, the presence of a star. In his big production numbers he easily holds the stage, and his ascendance into stardom feels plausible and gratifying. He also creates a nice connection with the people of his home, particularly with the wise old woman, Mumtaaz (Marie Kelly) and his best friend, the eunuch Sweety. That role, a curiosity, was given surprising depth and consequence by Aneesh Sheth. As the voice of integrity to Akaash, Mr. Sheth created a "woman who was a man" that brought both dignity and authenticity to the life Akaash leaves behind, and the conscience he carries with him. Mr. Bhatt and Mr. Sheth created a relationship that felt meaningful and genuine, and it validated a major theme of the show, the unbreakable connection between separate worlds.
In the central romantic relationship, Reshma Shetty is a spectacular beauty with a glorious voice. As Priya, the daughter of a once great director who is now hoping that "Bombay Dreams" will be his comeback, she was simultaneously approachable and transcendent. When she chooses a "smart" marriage to a corrupt producer it's obvious this man is, in fundamental ways, not good enough for her, and that only the purity and decency of Akaash will do. The act two duet "How Many Stars" between Akaash and Priya is one of the highlights of the production, and her solo in act one, "Is This Love" was the best song, and best performance, in the show.
The big production numbers, staged as part of the Miss India pageant, the premiere of Akaash's first movie, the Indian Film Awards, and the ill-fated wedding, were uniformly glitzy, high-energy, smartly choreographed (Lisa Stevens) affairs. New arrangements and musical supervision by Kevin Farrell achieved maximum effect from a modestly interesting score. Two excellent percussionists on towers beside the stage added complex rhythms to that blend of Indian and Western pop music by A.R. Rahman, with serviceable lyrics by Don Black. The fine scenic design (incorporating video) was by Kenneth Foy. Director Baayork Lee kept the whole production tight as a drum, and certainly deserves much of the credit for keeping the story compelling and the action fluid.
Lurking behind all this cross-cultural theatrical adventuring is the familiar face of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is co-credited with Shekhar Kapur for the original idea for the show. His Really Useful Theatre Company produced the original London production in 2002. It certainly has all of his trademark commercial theatricality, production excellence and musical superficiality. And it has the familiar look of a Lloyd Webber show, one that will bring people out for a big evening, dazzle and amuse them, require little from them, and most likely leave only the faintest trace of a lasting impression.