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Two Hits and a Bomb(ay Dreams)

In London, Filichia loves him some Shakespeare but finds Bombay Dreams to be a nightmare. logo

Preeya Kalidas, Raj Ghatak, and Raza Jaffrey
in Bombay Dreams
(Photo by Alastair Muir)
Sunday in London. As I'd planned, I went to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the afternoon and Twelfth Night at night. But, in between, I snuck out to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of A R Rahman's Bombay Dreams -- which was not written by Shakespeare but by Meera Syal, who is not nearly as talented.

The musical is about a young Indian man named Akaash, called "gutter boy" because his family lives in an enormous pipe in the unfashionable side of town. That doesn't keep Akaash from dreaming that someday he can be (you guessed it) a movie star, that all Bollywood will know him, and that he'll co-star with the legendary Rani. (What's she like? In case you can't imagine, someone in the show later says, "Nobody fits a wet sari like Rani.") Early in the show, we see a big sign fly in, advertising a new movie in which Rani is billed above the title. Need I add that we'll soon see Rani above and Akaash below, then Akaash and Rani over the title, then Akaash alone over the title and below it, in astonishingly smaller type, "with Rani." Though we meet the lady, we never hear how she feels about her fall from grace. Not for a second.

How does he get to be him, Mr. Akaash? Time for another cliché: a chance meeting with a movie mogul who's got a daughter who takes to Our Hero and feels he oughta be in pictures. Soon Akaash is on the set -- and, because it's been 10 whole minutes since our last cliché, we watch him make mistake after mistake ("Take 23"). His woeful incompetence is supposed to be funny, and it sort of is when compared with the author's incompetence, which is no joke at all. The big crisis comes at the end of the first act, on the night of the movie's gala premiere, as all of Akaash's fellow gutterites come to stand behind the velvet rope and wave wildly to him when he appears. I don't have to tell you, do I, that he snubs them all -- even Sweetie, his biggest fan. (Sweetie, by the way, isn't a woman. There are those who'd say he isn't a man, either, but that's up to each individual's definition; for what Sweetie became, as some men in India do to make a living, is a eunuch.)

Well, of course, before all is said and sung, Akaash repents and becomes a good friend to his old community -- especially when a Big Bad Corporation wants to evict everyone from his gutter pipe and none of the inhabitants wants to leave. En route, there are such witticisms as "Copyright means the right to copy" and such super-trite sentiments as "We are from two different worlds. This can never be." (This is a verbatim quote.) Granted, every now and then, there's an interesting turn of phrase -- says one executive to a wannabe, "I made the movies that put your father in the mood to leave your mother" -- but one scene actually dares to begin with, "Listen to me! It's true! The demolition of the district is about to happen!" Nor are the authors above having the heroine say to the hero, "By George, I think you've got it!" when he grasps her point. Worst of all, a TV interviewer asks the mogul at the premiere, "How does it feel?" before adding (another quotation, I swear it): "In song, if you must." And, of course he sings. Finally, I hope I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that Sweetie is killed while trying to protect Akaash, The Man He Loves.

The cast of Bombay Dreams sings "Chaiyya Chaiyya"
Rahman's music is pretty, though; and it's not terribly surprising that Lloyd Webber is producing, for Rahman's imitiation must have struck His Lordship as the most sincere form of flattery. But I should point out that the score was not tailor-made for this show. At least four songs -- including the big production number, "Shakalaka Baby," which I hope I never hear again -- were all in Bollywood films before Bombay Dreams ever saw the light of day. Don Black came in to write new lyrics, which was another Black day for musical theater. Nevertheless, as snarky as I sound, I'm very happy for the smash-hit succcess of Bombay Dreams because the show is giving its audiences a wonderful time. I was the only person in my row not wearing a sari; grateful I am that the management is getting the word out to London's considerable Indian community, and I can only hope that these new theatergoers love this strange new animal called The Musical so much that they wind up going to other musicals, which will certainly be better than this one. That's my personal Bombay Dream.

Oh, well. At least both of the Shakespearean productions I caught were pretty wonderful -- though in truth, the Globe's the thing that most impresses. The theater is as much an exact replica as we can possibly imagine of the place where Shakespeare's works were first ensconced -- approximately the outdoor "wooden 'O'" described at the start of Henry V, though the handsome proscenium stage flanked by marble columns is architectural conjecture. It's also a theater with a lot of standing room, for there's all that empty space in front of the stage for a good hundred groundlings. Both this space and every seat was filled for both performances I attended. Many people had children with them, and paper baseball caps are provided for those who usually don't go out in the noonday sun.

I got to sit in an actual seat behind the groundlings -- and, while I wouldn't want to cost anyone any money, it did occur to me that the experience would be that much more authentic if the groundlings dressed in Elizabethan clothes, so that those watching from behind could get the full late 16th-early 17th century experience. (By the way, woe to the groundling who, after a while, saunters away from his spot and tries to sit on the steps that lead to a section of seats; only seconds will pass before an usher will rush over and say that's not allowed.) Granted, even if every theatergoer wore a doublet, farthingale, or bumroll, we'd still know we weren't in Shakespeare's time while watching Mike Alfreds' A Midsummer Night's Dream. After Bottom auditions for his fellow rude mechanicals, one of the men asks him for his autograph. And when the guys are rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, Peter Quince, who's staging it for them, uses the director's best friend -- the finger-snap -- to keep things moving.

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night
More authentic still is Tim Carroll's 400th anniversary production of Twelfth Night -- not only because the costuming and settings are even more bare-bones but also because Carroll uses an all-male cast. How satisfying to see a Viola-Cesario who really is convincing as a boy, thanks to the presence of Michael Brown in the roles. His scenes with Liam Brennan's Orsino really crackle with homosexual panic. Nice to see Mark Rylance on hand as Olivia, too, for Rylance is the artistic director of the troupe and he belies the old saw that "Those who can, act; those who can't, administrate." Someday, someone will invent a machine that transposes the pictures we have in our heads into genuine photographs for all to enjoy; until then, I'll never be able to accurately capture in words the funny/sad expression on Rylance's face when Olivia finds out that Cesario is Viola.

A wonderfully enjoyable experience, all around; but the ambience of Shakespeare's Globe is so terrific that I probably would have had a great time even if the theater housed Bombay Dreams.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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