Although it features vibrant song and dance numbers, Charles Mee’s Queens Boulevard (the musical), the second production of Mee’s season at Signature Theatre, is not a Broadway-style tuner. The actors often sing along to pre-recorded tracks or perform karaoke versions of songs. While this may bother some theatergoers, it is perfectly in keeping with the collage-like style that Mee has developed in other works. And ultimately — and most importantly — this heartwarming urban fairy tale is absolutely bursting with vitality.
Newlywed husband Vijay (Amir Arison) takes leave of his bride Shizuko (Michi Barall) on their wedding day in order to find for her a “flower of heaven” to match the one she was mysteriously given by a wedding guest. As he searches for this elusive gift, he is drawn into a series of distracting encounters, thanks to his friend Abdi (Arian Moayed). As the title indicates, the action occurs in Queens and features a multicultural ensemble that reflects the ethnic diversity of that borough.
The show is inspired by Kottayan Tampurani’s kathakali play, The Flower of Good Fortune, although in typical Mee fashion, the playwright interpolates material from numerous other sources, including texts by Homer, James Joyce, Valerie Solanas, and numerous Internet blogs. The piece ruminates on the meanings of love and responsibility, often in a whimsical and humorous fashion. Several characters — from street peddlers to doctors — put forth their opinions on the subjects, with Abdi given some of the choicer speeches, which he uses to manipulate Vijay into making just one more small detour from his agenda.
Arison plays the conflicted Vijay with humor and compassion. The character wants so much to do the right thing, even if he has the unmistakable sensation that he’s sinking lower and lower into a pit. “There are things in life you have to take care of
whether it’s convenient or not, whether you have something else you’re trying to get done, you have some responsibilities as a human being,” he states, trying to justify how he’s strayed so far from his intended course.
Barall’s dazzling smile indicates the boundless happiness Shizuko feels following her wedding, but there’s also a sadness in her eyes, caused by Vijay’s absence. Still, her character — both as written and as performed — feels a little too one-dimensional. Moayed, on the other hand, is pitch-perfect as Abdi, seeming so sincere in his speeches that it’s easy to see how Vijay is persuaded to follow him.
Other standouts in the cast include Jodi Lin as Shizuko’s best friend Mimi, who impresses in a moving monologue about her father; Ruth Zhang as Shizuko’s mother, who delivers a hysterically funny karaoke rendition of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”; and Satya Bhabha, as a DJ character who presides over portions of the action and dynamically narrates a tale from Hindu mythology, about Shakuntala and King Dushyanta.
The remainder of the ensemble — Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Buell, Demosthenes Chrysan, Geeta Citygirl, Emily Donahoe, William Jackson Harper, Debargo Sanyal, and Jon Norman Schneider — all play multiple roles, often to amusing effect. They also participate in the lively dance numbers, choreographed by Peter Pucci, which incorporates Bollywood moves, traditional Japanese dance, hip-hop, and more. A highlight is a bathhouse number performed by Buell, Sanyal, and Chrysan that’s more fun than the Broadway revival of The Ritz.
The production features a terrific set design by Mimi Lien that captures the colorful, neon-lit cacophony of a fairy tale version of Queens. Christal Weatherly’s costumes are also quite effective, from the traditional Indian and Japanese elements featured in the cross-cultural wedding that begins the show, to the fantastic party outfits — with, admittedly, bad wigs — sported by Shizuko and her friends as they hit the clubs while in search of the missing Vijay.
Directed by Davis McCallum, Queens Boulevard does tend to drag every now and again during its hour-and-forty-five-minute intermissionless running time. But it ends on a strong, feel-good note that has both actors and audience members exiting with smiles on their faces.