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A Passage to India

Bombay Dreams is flashy, melodic, and insubstantial; Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't write it, but he may as well have. logo

Bombay Dreams, which opened in the West End this past June, is the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical -- except that Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't write it. This new spectacular has Webber in the role of producer, with lauded Bollywood composer AR Rahman actually composing the music. But as the rumbling, moody, and sweeping overture "Bombay Awakes" begins on the newly released cast album of the show, one senses that Rahman may indeed be India's answer to A.L.W.

Thus far, this prolific composer has been known as the "Mozart of Madras." Musically, there is no resemblance to Mozart, I assure you; but he is young and talented, and he has spent the last several years composing dozens upon dozens of scores to the big Bollywood musicals that dominate the Indian film industry. Bombay Dreams brings Bollywood to the London stage with a story that both pays homage to and teases the genre. Akaash, a young man living in the slums, has ambitious dreams; as luck would have it, he meets Priya, the daughter of a movie mogul, who longs to make her own, socially relevant films. She casts the charismatic Akaash and falls in love with him, as well, but many challenges await the young lovers.

The story of Bombay Dreams, thin to begin with, is not easily gleaned from the cast recording. A casual listen to the disc may leave the listener thinking that it's a high concept, oriental-flavored techno album. Though the dance beat nicely offsets Rahman's lush melodies, its relentless pulse eventually becomes wearisome. The few songs that break free from the beat -- notably Akaash's big number, "The Journey Home" -- are among Rahman's best efforts.

Other good songs include the Hindi rock song "Chaiyya Chaiyya"; an instrumental called "I Could Live Here"; and "Bombay Dreams," the dreamy opener that introduces the residents of the city:

Some live and die in debt,
Others making millions on the internet.
City of extremes.
Everything is possible in Bombay dreams.

Among the more forgettable cuts on the album are "Don't Release Me" and "Ooh La La." And I fail to get the Brits' infatuation with "Shakalaka Baby," which somehow became a hit single in the U.K. Considering that Bombay Dreams was meant to bring the glitz of Bollywood to London theatergoers (at a cost of $6.7 million, no less), I can only assume that one needs to see big production numbers like "Shakalaka" to fully understand.

AR Rahman
The cast includes many fine singers, including Raza Jaffrey as the hero, who manages to make even the clichéd "Like An Eagle" soar. Preeya Kalidas has a strong and attractive voice that gives heroine Priya a formidable presence in her solo, "Only Love," and in her face-offs with her father ("Happy Endings") and Akaash (the plucky "Are You Sure You Want To Be Famous?"). The pair's big duets, "How Many Stars?" and "Closer Than Ever," are passionate and haunting as Rahman demonstrates an ability to explore the deeper recesses of love in the pop-musical theater vernacular.

Raj Ghatak, playing a eunuch from the slums who is heartsick over Akaash, makes "Love's Never Easy" a compelling song, though lyricist Don Black's words are less impressive than Rahman's lilting melody and Ghatak's sensitive interpretation. Black has a fair amount of experience behind him, much of it writing lyrics for Lloyd Webber musicals like Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. As in those collaborations, his work here is generally bland and predictable, with only the occasional inspired line.

Ultimately, this disc offers the same pleasures and disappointments as Closer to Heaven, the Pet Shop Boys' musical that played the West End last year: a barely coherent story with several lovely melodies, underscored by an insistent beat that is enjoyable at first but soon becomes monotonous. Bombay Dreams does have a richer, more cinematic sound, thanks to Rahman's extensive film experience; and it certainly is a nice change of pace to have a big budget musical that ventures East for its setting, musical style, and cast. Yet, from the sound of it, the show never goes beyond the manufactured majesty of those Bollywood musicals that its heroine deplores.

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