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Bombay Dreams logo
Manu Narayan and Anisha Nagarajan
in Bombay Dreams
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The idea for Bombay Dreams is credited to Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Maybe it seems a sour-curry idea to begin with, but no idea is intrinsically bad. At bottom, everything depends on execution, doesn't it? After all, when word got around that George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was about to become a musical, the sound of scoffing was heard throughout the land. Then out popped My Fair Lady.

So it's possible that someone or -ones could have made something of the Kapur-Lloyd Webber notion to put a Bollywood film on stage, "Bollywood" being the sobriquet given the hyperactive Bombay film industry. Run a boy-gets-girl love story past patrons and interrupt it as often as possible with overblown musical numbers that may or may not have anything to do with the plot, and there you have it. But Bombay Dreams, which has been playing at London's barn-like Apollo Victoria for two years, isn't the answer to Lloyd Webber's commercial namaste. ALW has added $14 million or so to the reportedly 14 million pounds he and his investors put into the English version, much of it to spruce up the simple-minded libretto that unfolds amid Mark Thompson's glaring sets and twinkling costumes, Hugh Vanstone's often blazing lights, and Mick Potter's unbashful sound design.

The show, with Thomas Meehan tweaking the Meera Syal script right, left, and center, is now putting its glittering face and glitzy foot forward in New York. As someone who's seen it in both locales, I can say that it's no better on this side of the Atlantic than on the other. It's been trimmed of a subplot involving -- near as I can recall what I made a stab at blocking from out -- a corrupt moneyman. This is a scant improvement. The end result of Doc Meehan's restructuring and gag-writing, both of which he's highly valued for along the Main Stem, is not an upgrade.

The movie into which protagonist Akaash (Manu Narayan) invites the audience to leap is about his attempts to leave the humble hovel where he lives with his dignified grandmother Shanti (Madhur Jaffrey) and where he is frequently visited by a trannie called Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan). They're all untouchables threatened with displacement because developers -- the most modern of today's villains -- want to tear down the neighborhood and put up a multiplex. It never occurs to Akaash that he's longing to join an industry that's fighting him or that he wants to exchange his untouchable status for celluloid untouchability; that paradox probably never entered the minds of Lord Lloyd Webber et al., either.

Through a series of events that are too idiotic to report but that involve a beauty contest going awry, Akaash is catapulted to where he wants to be: He's cast as the neophyte star of a movie opposite his idol, Rani (Ayesha Dharker, the only import from the London ensemble). He begins an affair with her but is more interested in the film's first-time producer Priya (Anisha Nagarajan), the daughter of mogul Madan (Marvin L. Ishmael) and the fiancée of shady lawyer Vikram (Deep Katdare). Before Akaash realizes what a jerk he's become, he's denying grandma Shanti and his other friends three times as much as Peter denied Jesus. Eventually realizing that he doesn't like cutting himself off from his roots, Akash decides to re-racinate by confronting Vikram during his wedding festivities and claiming Priya for himself. That's when the plucky bride has a near-denouement Kill Bill moment. The fact that the real lovers unite is no surprise because, after all, this is a Bollywood product.

This synopsis sounds cheesy because that's what the show is. If you're going to put kitsch on stage, you can't simply replicate it, but no one associated with Bombay Dreams seems disposed to be genuinely creative. Perhaps in the hope of milking the large Indian market, they play it straight -- as if there's anything original about the tale of a boy turning his back on his upbringing in order to better himself and ending up in hot water, as if this isn't Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy in henna.

On the score score, the news isn't much better. A R Rahman, a prolific Bollywood contributor, evidently has included some of his signature tunes here along with some new ones. But whereas his melodies may seem moody and alluring in a movie theater, they come across as personality-challenged in a stage musical. (One of them even conjures memories of Don McLean's "Vincent.") The hit is "Shakalaka Baby," during which the actors -- shaking their lakas on a sound stage -- are doused by water from numerous jets that suddenly spout.

Ayesha Dharker and the cast of Bombay Dreams
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Each ballad is pallid -- and that may be a better rhyme than any of those planted by lyricist Don Black. His endless string of rhymed couplets is so impoverished that he mates "star" with "caviar" twice. Missing from the original collection of songs is "Are You Sure You Want to Be Famous?", perhaps because there's no longer any question of that in Akaash's mind. (Note to CD collectors: The original London cast album presents the score pretty much as it's heard in New York but not exactly.) Incidentally, there are times when site workers sing snatches of the Johnny Mercer-Richard Whiting "Hooray for Hollywood" as "Hooray for Bollywood." It was a bad idea to introduce something so sassy into something so soggy.

Director Steven Pimlott, who has to make sure that no one in the 38-member cast bumps into the copious sets, does so. Keeping things moving is also the aim of choreographers Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan. Because of the regular cross-pollination between the woods Holly- and Bolly-, much of the shimmying in Bombay Dreams looks like a Janet Jackson video. At the head of the peregrinating cast, beefcake Manu Narayan wears so much makeup from his first entrance that he already looks set to step onto a sound stage. Anisha Nagarajan sings sweetly and shows some of Priya's spunk. Bosomy Ayesha Dharker is a fitting firebrand and cuisine artist Madhur Jaffrey is fine, although she's not working with ingredients as fresh as what she'd demand in her kitchen. Of the other principals, Sriram Ganesan is lithesome and committed as ex-man Sweetie, Deep Katdare is as shifty as today's stage lawyers are required to be, and Marvin L. Ishmael displays verve as the bottom-line watching papa.

This show repeatedly trumpets the promise that "everything is possible in Bombay dreams," yet it's a technicolor nightmare that may require alteration of its title to Sari, Wrong Numbers.

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