Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sounds from Beyond Broadway - Holler If Ya Hear Me - Musical Review

Holler If Ya Hear Me - Palace Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Lyrics by Tupac Shakur, Book by Todd Kreidler, Directed by Kenny Leon, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento


Yes, there is a musical on Broadway that features the words, eloquence and anger of Tupac Shakur, the rising rap star who was just breaking into the mainstream before his young life was tragically shattered when he was murdered at the young age of 25. His music and words were full of anger from his view of the streets and the hoods he came from and while his song of hope, "California Love" probably became his most famous song played on Top 40 radio, Tupac Shakur spoke most of the frustrations of living amongst the violence and trap that Black America has been put in. And he spoke from his own view, with his own voice, and it created a devoted following.

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new Broadway musical uses Tupac's deeply personal songs but tells an original tale of various characters living in the same violent and hopeless streets where nonsensical gang wars rule the day, and people live in fear, or retaliatory anger. Todd Kreidler's book spreads Tupac's word into various voices, mainly concerning a now-freed con John (an amazing Saul Williams, a noted poet) who returns to the streets and tries to stay out of trouble by getting a job at the local mechanics shop owned by the one White man in the cast Griffy (an endearing Ben Thompson, American Idiot). Unfortunately John's girl Corine (a divine Saycon Sengbloh, Fela, Hair) has moved on in during his 10-year imprisonment and is now with John's old friend Vertus (a terrific Christopher Jackson, In the Heights). The plot machinations gets moving pretty soon though when Vertus' brother Benny gets killed before we even register who Benny quite is, and then plots of revenge, pride and rising up are placed as steadily as a rap beat.

Unfortunately, while Tupac's songs have potential to be effective storytelling material in a musical, the cliched plot, and the multiple character plot lines give very little characterization and time to get deeper into each person, and thus the songs, which could have been more effective to deepen the emotions, fail to deliver any real resonance that may further the story.


When the songs fully come to life, like in "Holler If Ya Hear Me", or the respite-from-anger "California Love", they are a burst of energetic brilliance that shows the potential in the show, and the potential to create some real emotional connections. The stirring moments offer a glimpse of what might have been, but this would have benefited from a tryout Off-Broadway or out-of-town and another edit at the book.

The wonderfully game cast, which includes the commanding presence of Tonya Pinkins as Vertus' mother, Mrs. Weston, inject as much energy as they can into this dark and angry piece, and when there is choreography (by Wayne Cilento), it keeps the staging interesting from the plodding book, but alas, the overall structure and vague characters and motives are not enough to make this musical be heard properly.

Photos by Joan Marcus
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