Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: "Queens Boulevard (the Musical)"

Over the weekend we caught a matinee of Queens Boulevard (the musical) at an off-broadway theater in New York. The play has already been covered at both SAJAForum and Ultrabrown; here are my own impressions.

The cast of Queens Boulevard has three people of South Asian descent in it, and Charles Mee, the playwright, mentions in the script that "Queens Boulevard (the musical) was inspired by the Katha-Kali play The Flower of Good Fortune by Kottayan Tampuran." The central plot of the story is partly a reworking of the Shakuntala myth, and partly a version of Homer's The Odyssey -- and sometimes both at once.

I had a number of problems with the play, but I want to start with the positives.

First, the musical numbers are terrific. At times they create a really interesting sense of cross-cultural collage, and the choreography and dancing is well-done. The show makes good use of a Punjabi wedding song (twice), an Asian Karaoke rendition of Abba's "Dancing Queen," M.I.A.'s "10 Dollar," French hip hop, a Gaelic ballad, and a half-dozen other songs. (Far and away, the high point of the show for me was the glam/nightclub dance sequence set to the M.I.A. song.)

Second, the set design by Mimi Lien is pretty brilliant -- it's a lively snapshot of a street in Jackson Heights, with Indo-Pak-Bangla shops, travel agencies, Chinese and Korean signs, and Bollywood film ads plastering every surface. It captures the energy and bustle of Queens without seeming busy.

Third, I liked the play's appropriation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala story (or see Wikipedia for a summary). Though it was introduced near the end of a play as a long monologue, it was done quite well.

Finally, the overall effect the play is going for is a multi-culti pastiche, with East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Eastern European, cultures all moving together and interacting in the same space. Getting this to work on stage reflects a sincere and admirable kind of ambition on the part of the playwright and cast, and I wish people would try doing it more.

Unfortunately, in my opinion the actual plot and the dialogue in the play as written is often quite bad. There are numerous long, ponderous monologues about love and fidelity that drag the energy of the play down, again and again.

You don't have to just take my word for it -- Charles Mee has posted the entire text of his play online at his website. Here is one of the monologues I personally found to be cliché-ridden deadweight:

I mean, you know,
it's wonderful that you've just been married
that you have found the love
we all hope for
even if we're born
with parents we love
still we look for the one who is meant only for us
and then, it seems,
when the time comes that we lose our parents
we see that any love we find in life
lives amidst these other loves we've lost and found and lost,
the love of parents
if we're lucky
if we grow as we're meant to grow
nourished and protected by the love of our families and our friends
so that your love for your wife
belongs to this sea of love
of social love
and is nourished and sustained by that
because, as we all come to know,
it's not enough just to experience carnal love
or erotic love
or personal love
because, none of us is safe in our own lives and loves
without the social love that makes a safe place
for our personal love to flourish
the regard, the respect,
and, then, too, as we have come to see,
the recognition of all kinds of love deepens each one
so that your love for your wife is deepened
and honored and sustained
when you act on your love for your friends and their families. (link)

If you go for that sort of thing, you might enjoy Queens Boulevard more than I did. My feeling is that Charles Mee's mistake here is to try and impose long segments of "serious" and conventional "drama" between the surrealist, cross-cultural musical numbers. A better approach might have been to keep the "straight" plot and dialogue light -- aim more for the tone of an intelligent romantic comedy perhaps -- or lose it entirely, and go entirely surrealist (in the Richard Foreman vein).

I had some other problems with the play, but I don't want to nitpick.

I should also point out that other people seem to have enjoyed Queens Boulevard more than I did. A commenter at Ultrabrown, for instance, wrote the following:

I just saw QUEENS BOULEVARD this past Friday night, and loved it! It was such a unique theatrical experience–there was music, singing, dancing, a fun script, smart direction, and strong actors. Most of the actors played multiple roles, including Debargo Sanyal, who was downright hilarious as the Paan Beedi Guy (that you mention above), as well as in his several other roles. Geeta Citygirl and Satya Bhabha were great also. And there’s a hysterical little dance set in a Russian bathhouse featuring three of the men (wearing nothing but towels and smiles!) that must be seen to be believed. I highly recommend this production for folks looking to spend a fun evening at the theater this holiday season.(link)

I agree with Ameera on Debargo Sanyal at least, who was indeed one of the standout members of the cast (I hope we'll be seeing more of him down the road, either in the theater, or in TV/movies).

Queens Boulevard (the musical) is playing at the Signature Theatre until December 30. All seats are $20; it's a small theater, so there's no bad seats.

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