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Bombay Dreams (04/29/2004 - 01/01/2005)


AP: "Bombay Dreams a Bland Musical"

This is something that could only happen in a dream," sighs the hip-swiveling, rags-to-riches hero of "Bombay Dreams."

"Or in the very far-fetched script of a Bollywood musical," replies the eunuch whose heart of gold has been stolen, of course, by our handsome leading man.

Those lines pretty much explain what you should expect from "Bombay Dreams," an expensive yet surprisingly bland musical extravaganza that has arrived on Broadway from London where it was a considerable success.

The New York version, which opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, has been retooled. Yet the show isn't much improved over its English counterpart, even though book doctor Thomas Meehan, who has had a hand in such shows as "Annie," "Hairspray" and "The Producers," has helped original author Meera Syal rewrite and untangle its more confusing plot points.

The problem is "Bombay Dreams" can't decide whether it wants to spoof or celebrate those over-the-top, hokey and often downright silly musicals that are the backbone of Bollywood, the Indian film industry.

It ends up doing a little of both, creating an uncertainty of tone that leaves the story muddled, the actors over-emoting and the evening lurching from one big, athletic dance number to another. Director Steven Pimlott tries his best to keep everything from unraveling.

The Cinderella-like story concerns Akaash (Manu Narayan), a cocky young man from the slums, who suddenly finds himself a Bollywood star after crashing the Miss India pageant.

Akaash becomes the protege of a tempestuous Bollywood diva (Ayesha Dharker), but his heart belongs to the beautiful daughter (Anisha Nagarajan) of a film producer. Also thrown into the mix, Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan), that appropriately named eunuch, and a villainous lawyer (Deep Katdare) who is trying to steal the land out from under the hovels of Bombay’s Untouchables. The bad guy wants to build Bombay's biggest Cineplex - "25 screens and a Pizza Hut."

If Don Black's lyrics are pedestrian, the music by A R Rahman possesses a sweeping, grandiose style that suits the show's more emotional moments. The music is reminiscent of the expansive melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who produced "Bombay Dreams" in London but not New York. Rahman filters many of his tunes through a catchy pop sensibility so that more than one of them, particularly the hypnotic "Shakalaka Baby," will stay with you after you leave the theater.

That number, by the way, contains what quite literally is the musical's most splashy effect - spurting fountains of water that drench the cast as they gyrate and lip-sync in true Bollywood style.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of dry stretches on either side of this “wet-sari scene," which is what one character in the musical calls that supreme watery moment. The story is a trite one, laced with an earnestness that doesn't allow for much wit. And when Meehan and Syal try to inject some humor, the heavy-handed jokes fall flat.

Since Bollywood musicals demand a happy ending, suspense about who will get the girl in the end is minimal.

It doesn't help that the acting is as rudimentary as much of the dialogue. Yet you have to give the cast points for effort. They work hard, particularly Narayan, who is at the forefront of most of the relentless dance numbers devised by choreographers Anthony van Laast and Farah Khan.

Visually, "Bombay Dreams" looks lovely. Rich, vibrant colors, a lot of purples, reds, pinks and violets, swirl across the stage. Scenic designer Mark Thompson gets to run the gamut from opulent movie sets to a crowded Bombay slum that swoops down from high above the stage's proscenium arch. Thompson's costumes are equally lavish.

But the eye can only take you so far. "What else have any of us got but our foolish dreams?"' says Akaash during one of the musical's more determined moments of uplift. Foolish is OK, but why does it have to be so predictable?


New York Daily News: "A Bombay dream come true"

From time to time in "Bombay Dreams," a lavish and affectionate homage to Bollywood films, a character sings a line of genuine Indian music.

These fleeting, haunting moments remind us of a rich and ancient culture totally at odds with the dizzy, Western-inspired movies that inspire the plot and style of "Bombay Dreams."

They provide a poignancy that gives a smidgen of an emotional core to material that, in Bollywood fashion, seems like a '30s Hollywood movie or a pre-"Oklahoma!" Broadway musical.

The plot is melodramatic. Akaash, a poor boy from Bombay, becomes a movie star. Embracing his life as a millionaire, a sort of subcontinental Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he shuns his friends and relatives.

Only after belatedly realizing the falseness of his new chums does he ride to the rescue of his childhood world, a slum about to be demolished by a sinister developer.

The book, by Meera Syal, with easy-to-spot contributions from Thomas Meehan, makes no bones about being derivative. Nor does the score, by A.R. Rahman, with typically banal lyrics by Don Black, have any pretentions.

Like musicals of yesteryear, the show's only desire is to amuse, which it does.

"Bombay Dreams" has an innocent artlessness that saves it from being mere camp. When it reproduces Bollywood cliches such as a "wet sari" number featuring an onstage fountain, the effect is joyfully giddy, rather than condescending.

The show's high spirits stem in large part from its cast, starting with Manu Narayan as the earnest Akaash. Narayan sings beautifully and dances with infectious energy.

The exquisite Anisha Nagarajan is enormously appealing as the director who gives him his big break. Sriram Ganesan is surprisingly affecting as a eunuch who is Akaash's childhood friend. The two have a deeply touching duet.

Madhur Jaffrey has a quiet, moving dignity as Akaash's grandmother. Ayesha Dharker is suitably tarty as his Bollywood mistress, and Sarah Ripard, who looks oddly like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," is properly catty as a gossip queen.

The limited vocabulary of the choreography, by Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan, is also faithful to the Bollywood esthetic. Its aggressive cheerfulness is more than compensation for its lack of subtlety.

The music itself, scored to include two percussionists on balconies on either side of the stage, has an elemental vigor as well as an occasional sweetness.

The sets and costumes have a cartoonish quality that reminds us we are seeing India through Western prisms.

Like its sources, "Bombay Dreams" strives for nothing more than unabashed entertainment. It succeeds.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Dreams' is a Sari Affair"

Hooray for Bollywood? Hardly. "Bombay Dreams," which opened last night, may not be too bad for what it is - if you're looking for an ornate, tongue-in-cheek musical pastiche of India's answer to Hollywood.

But this overheated curry, although adapted for American tastes, may not appeal to every palate.

First conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber and later conceptualized by Shekhar Kapur, the musical has been subject to a major sea-change on its voyage to Broadway. Now fancier and less muddied, it's also less original than it was in London.

It still has its jolly, occasionally soupily romantic and often monotonous music by A.R. Rahman, hampered by Don Black's hardly felicitous lyrics. Mark Thompson's settings and costumes are as splashy as ever (think of the most opulent Las Vegas-style version of an Indian restaurant serving bangles rather than food).

The story, like that of practically every Bollywood movie, is of a pushy slum kid - one of Bombay's Untouchables - who longs to be a movie star, only to attain his dream, become corrupted by fame and find his conscience and get the rich girl in the final reel.

The show now playing at the Broadway Theatre is less ethnic than it was in London, and the director of both versions, the talented Steven Pimlott, has sharpened the clarity and turned up the volume. In Bollywood's obligatory wet sari scene, for instance, 32 fountain jets spurt where only 13 spouted before.

The producers have brought in Thomas ("Annie," "The Producers") Meehan to juice up Meera Syal's original book and make it more Broadway-friendly. He's added some jokes, one or two of which are even funny.

All the same, there's a lot more glitz than glory here, more sequins than truth.

Most of the cast skims neatly above adequacy, but neither of the stars - Manu Narayan as Akaash, the Untouchable urchin with Bollywood ambitions, and Anisha Nagarajan as Priya, the upper-caste daughter of Bollywood royalty who loves him - leaves much to remember.

Better is Ayesha Dharker (the sole survivor from the London version) as the bitch-goddess movie star, Rani.

The deepest impression is left by that great lady of the London stage, Madhur Jaffrey, as the hero's sweetly dignified grandmother. She has a simplicity, grace and honesty that should make the rest of the show glitter with shame.

New York Post

New York Times: "Coloring by the Numbers: A Brightly Bland Bollywood"

Colors don't come any juicier than those that saturate ''Bombay Dreams,'' the $14 million musical about movie love Bollywood-style, which opened last night at the Broadway Theater. Scarcely a scene goes by that isn't splashed with gorgeous heaping helpings of oranges, golds, greens, purples, yellows and more shades of pink than even Estée Lauder had names for.

Yet such is the perverse spell cast by this friendly, flat and finally unengaging tale of glamorous movie folk and lovable untouchables that everything seems to melt into one neutral blur before your eyes, like a monochromatic symphony in the key of beige. Advertisements for the show may tout it as a voyage to ''somewhere you've never been before.'' But even theatergoers who have never seen a sari or eaten papadum are likely to find ''Bombay Dreams'' as familiar as this morning's breakfast. It takes more than color, evidently, to be colorful.

In a Broadway season notable for draining the flavor out of promisingly tasty musicals -- from the antiseptic ''Fiddler on the Roof'' to the sexless Astaire and Rogersesque romance ''Never Gonna Dance'' -- ''Bombay Dreams'' holds its own as an expensive model of blandness. Produced in London by no less a theatrical eminence than Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer whose swoony poperettas ruled Broadway in the 1980's, ''Bombay Dreams'' tries to translate with a wink the formulas of Bollywood musical melodramas. But the effect is of the wide-eyed, helpless stare of something trapped in a listless limbo between tipsy spoof and sober sincerity. That was more or less the verdict of many critics in London when the show opened there two years ago, but ''Bombay Dreams'' went on to become a fat, nose-thumbing hit. A similarly defiant success in New York is not assured, however, since London has a much larger and more culturally conspicuous population of South Asian descent than New York does.

It was assumed that a good part of the audience for ''Bombay Dreams'' in London would have fond and intimate knowledge of the mass-produced singing films that inspired the show, samples of which are currently on view in the Cinema India! festival at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Previous familiarity with this genre is not essential to following the by-the-numbers plot of ''Bombay Dreams,'' which mixes mean-streets tragedy with fluffy, feel-good fantasy.

But to appreciate the show's wit, such as it is, requires some awareness of its cinematic prototypes. Imagine the perplexity of someone who has never seen a Busby Berkeley movie watching the Broadway version of ''42nd Street,'' or a theatergoer unversed in the films of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford trying to follow a show by a drag artist like Charles Busch. When it comes to pastiche, it helps to be in on the joke of what is being imitated.

In bringing ''Bombay Dreams'' to the States, its creators have retooled it in the hopes of making it more accessible to Bollywood virgins. Meera Syal's original script, which follows a young man's speedy rise from the lower depths to the height of movie stardom, has had its plot streamlined and its one-liners plumped up via the three-time Tony-winning writer Thomas Meehan (''Annie,'' ''The Producers,'' ''Hairspray''). Much of an involved criminal subplot, with attendant acts of stylized violence, has been jettisoned.

The songs by A R Rahman, one of India's most prolific film composers, are now performed by a 19-member orchestra, nearly twice the size of that in London, and they have seemingly been rearranged (by Paul Bogaev and Christopher Nightingale) to please the ears of Americans accustomed to Top 40 fare, sacrificing some of the beguiling intricacy the music had in London. At the same time, Don Black's lyrics have been rewritten (with the assistance of David Yazbek of ''The Full Monty'') in the name of plot-advancing clarity.

At the center of that plot is Akaash (Manu Narayan), a scrappy, able-bodied untouchable and movie-drunk fantasist, who lives in the slums of Bombay with his wise, kind grandmother, Shanti (Madhur Jaffrey -- yes, she also writes the cookbooks). Aided by a wise, kind eunuch named Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan), he captures the attention of Madan (Marvin L. Ishmael), a Bollywood producer; Priya (Anisha Nagarajan), Madan's beautiful daughter, who is an independent filmmaker with a social conscience; and the vain, domineering Rani (Ayesha Dharker), the sweetheart of Indian cinema.

Soon Akaash is a star of the screen and of Rani's bed. But in the meantime, he has turned his back on his humble beginnings, at a moment when his old friends need his help to keep their happy slum from being razed by developers.

And the virtuous Priya, whom he really loves, is engaged to the seemingly honorable lawyer Vikram (Deep Katdare).

The complications arising from this nexus of relationships allow the designers Mark Thompson (scenery and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting) to whip up a succession of lavishly hued set pieces, from a picturesque, homey garbage heap that descends to the stage from above to a swirling parade replete with illuminated elephants' heads. Along the road to resolution, the characters trade wisecracks that would seem worldly only to preadolescents, dance aerobically and perform numbers ranging from syrupy ballads (''Love's Never Easy'') to insistently rhythmic, full-throttle production routines.

None of this is painful to watch. Sometimes it is rather pleasant. But it is never, ever compelling. Under the direction of Steven Pimlott, with choregraphy by Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan, the ensemble members work earnestly and tirelessly. But they have been steered into an acting style common to performers in children's shows -- broad, jocular and irony-free.

The lean, limber Mr. Narayan, the lovely Ms. Nagarajan and the seriously sincere Mr. Ganesan share the virtue of being peppy without being pushy. Mr. Narayan has a pleasant, slightly strained voice that can't quite do justice to the wavering, melancholy notes of the show's best ballad, ''The Journey Home.'' Ms. Jaffrey, the best-known cast member, conveys a natural aristocratic elegance that adds an incongruous touch of class to the slums of Bombay.

The show's real star, however, is Ms. Dharker, the only holdover from London among the leading players. Equipped with dangerous curves and a blindingly self-satisfied smile, Ms. Dharker's Rani exudes the deep superficiality that makes good send-ups of ego-driven stars so satisfying.

As Rani happily and viciously hogs the spotlight in the Bollywood production numbers, Ms. Dharker achieves what the rest of the production aspires to but rarely realizes: a performance that transmits the core appeal of what's being parodied, a style that embraces even as it skewers.

In ''Shakalaka Baby,'' the deliriously kitschy film-set routine led by Ms. Dharker, the show takes on the glow of divine madness you've been waiting for all along. And when that already talked-about fountain erupts into cast-drenching geysers (shooting even higher than the one in London!), ''Bombay Dreams'' briefly reaches the dizzy, surreal heights you associate with the movies that inspired it.

That's in the first act. Only one number afterward -- another fairly straightforward and classically Bollywood routine, set at the Indian Film Awards -- comes close to creating the same magic.

For a Broadway show set in Bombay that has arrived by way of London, this musical winds up suggesting another provenance altogether: Las Vegas, land of the flashy floor show and simulacra of foreign metropolises, where live entertainment exists mostly as lavish background noise.

New York Times

USA Today: "A plain old bomb"

How do you say "mind-numbing bunk" in Hindi? I couldn't tell you, but after attending a certain preview performance last weekend, I'd like to propose a new English-language synonym: Bombay Dreams (* out of four).

That would be the London-based musical that opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre. I use the term "musical" only in the loose sense that applies when a contrived story and generic-sounding tunes are slapped together as an excuse to haul out glitzy sets, dizzying costumes and stupefying special effects.

Here, the lure also involves a readily exploitable trend. "Bollywood," the Indian film industry, fascinates many Westerners, among them that British composer of generic-sounding tunes, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lloyd Webber is only Dreams' producer, but he has a fellow spirit in A.R. Rahman, whose music, a syrupy stew of faintly spiced pop ciich6s, suggests the equivalent of a Big Mac sprinkled with curry powder.

The plot consists of similarly cliche-ridden, pseudo-populist hooey. It involves a family of "untouchables”, the dregs of India's social caste system, whose village is about to be torn down by despicable developers. Our hero, Akaash, is a slum boy who escapes by becoming a movie star. He then falls for luscious Priya, who happens to be an aspiring director.

Conveniently, Priya's boyfriend is a creep; we know this because he wears Gucci shoes and seems glued to his cell phone. We also know Priva is virtuous, because she wants to make black-and-white films that don't have happy endings. Besides, only she can save Akaash from the vixenish charms of screen siren Rani, who we know is evil because she wants him to reject his poor family. Worse still, she wants to wear a pink bra in Priya's black-and-white film.

It's tough to say whose lines are lamer: librettists Meera Syal and Thomas Meehan or lyricist Don Black, whose contributes this doozy, sung by Akaash to his fellow villagers: "I'll come back with china plates for you to eat on/Some Persian rugs for you to wipe your feet on/And a toilet that has a toilet seat on."

He should have saved himself the trouble - and so should you.

USA Today

Variety: "Bombay Dreams"

Salaa'm Bombay! And haven't we met somewhere before? The gaudy hues of the sets and costumes may be unfamiliar, and the seductive music certainly has a fresh tang, but look beneath the colorful trappings of "Bombay Dreams" and you'll find something less exotic. This Bollywood-inspired stage musical, Broadway's latest import from London, tells the story of a starry-eyed young man from the slums who, against all odds, makes it big in showbiz, only to find that the heady blandishments of fame are worthless baubles.

Ring any chimes? Broadway has already been down this cliche-paved road twice this season, in the musical about the young man from the Australian sticks who flared big and flamed out in 1970s New York, and the one about the young man from the British suburbs who did the same in the London nightclub scene in the 1980s. While "Bombay Dreams" inarguably has the spiciest backdrop, it is no more successful at breathing new life into the rusty mechanics of its plot than either "The Boy From Oz" or "Taboo." Like those mostly misbegotten musicals, it's synthetic at its core.

Produced in London by Andrew Lloyd Webber, "Bombay Dreams" has been substantially revised for Broadway. Composer A R Rahman, whose beguiling music is both the show's chief asset and its primary victim, has supplied five new songs. A few others have been eliminated (most notably "Like an Eagle," the hero's big pop anthem from the first act). Broadway's book doctor du jour, Thomas Meehan ("The Producers," "Hairspray"), was called in to tame the more outlandishly silly excesses of Meera Syal's original.

Gone is the cackling villain out of a "Scooby-Doo" cartoon, thank goodness. But the vulgar excesses of the London production were at least a distraction from the insipid plotting. The streamlined Broadway version, more cleanly structured, is blander, and the worn-to-the-stump banalities of the storyline are no less prominent.

Akaash (Manu Narayan), the hero, is a spunky kid from a steaming slum called Paradise on the outskirts of Bombay. He dreams of Bollywood stardom, so he can buy the land the slum sits on and save it from greedy industrialists.

Following a head-spinning series of contrivances -- or "big Bollywood coincidences," as the persistently shrugging book has it -- Akaash quickly realizes his dream, only to turn his back on his dear old granny (Madhur Jaffrey) and his best childhood pal, the sharp-tongued, sweet-hearted eunuch Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan). ("Taboo" had drag queens, and "Boy From Oz" had Liza and Judy, but "Bombay Dreams" goes 'em one better.)

Before the bulldozers can move in, Akaash has had a change of heart, of course, and he abandons the plush but empty trappings of stardom -- primarily the embrace of his plush but empty co-star Rani (Ayesha Dharker) -- to proclaim solidarity with his people. He also foils the bad guy, who happens to be the fiance of Akaash's true love, the socially conscious filmmaker Priya (Anisha Nagarajan).

Tolerance for the musical's inanities may vary in accordance with one's affection for same in the movies that inspired it. (I always cherish a good kick-the-gun-from-bad-guy's-hand move, so familiar from "Charlie's Angels" episodes of yore.) Just as Hugh Jackman did in "The Boy From Oz," Narayan's Akaash not infrequently steps out of his story to smilingly apologize to the audience for a particularly suspect turn of events. But sari-wrapped contrivances are still contrived.

And, in truth, the saris here are woven from suspiciously synthetic fibers. The most dispiriting thing about "Bombay Dreams" is that, Rahman's music aside, its ethnicity feels ersatz. A brief glance at the lovely, sinuously graceful dancing and choreography in a Bollywood film reveals how the Vegas-ready aesthetic of Anthony Van Laast ("Mamma Mia!") appears to have run roughshod over the contributions of Bollywood's Farah Khan, his collaborator. Mark Thompson's sets don't really evoke the distinctive, glitzy grandeur of Bollywood either -- they often have a plastic, factory-produced look: Barbie's Bombay Dream House.

Rahman's alluring music, on the other hand, gives the show some real integrity. The promise of the musical's wordless opening moments, in which soft, shimmering chords gradually build to a stirring climax, is borne out by Rahman's continually enticing score. The composer provides richly rhythmic, jangling tunes for the splashy dance numbers, and can also write honorably in contemporary Western idioms. The hero's soaring solo in the second act, "The Journey Home," is a fine piece of pop balladry. (One does wish, however, that Rahman had resisted the idea of a rap tune for Akaash's star-making moment, a dubious and desperate addition for Broadway.) The layered textures of Rahman's percussion and string writing give the ear something to concentrate on when exasperation sets in at the clunky gracelessness of Don Black's lyrics.

The evening's performers also deserve a measure of praise. In the central role of Akaash, the lean, lively Narayan is a bit slick and ingratiating in the early scenes, but eventually settles down to give an appealing performance. If he is not the boundless charmer who could transcend the gauche simplicities of the characterization, he nevertheless acquits himself with honor.

Nagarajan is pert and spirited as filmmaker Priya, Akaash's real love. Dharker, who created the role in London, provides the show with some enjoyable sass as the rapacious Rani. Ganesan gives a spirited, crowdpleasing turn as the martyred eunuch Sweetie.

Fine singers though they are, the leading performers have not mastered the distinctive, fluttering vocal style of authentic Indian music. But that's hardly surprising. "Bombay Dreams" plainly does not provide the illuminating immersion in an exotic culture that you might hope for.

And yet it breaks new ground on Broadway in at least one respect. "Shakalaka Baby," the show's big production number from act one, replete with the dancing fountains that are a Bollywood staple, is entirely lip-synched. That seems somehow appropriate: "Bombay Dreams" itself has a karaoke kind of feeling, a secondhand flavor. The musical ultimately comes across as a bloated, shallow attempt to repackage the exotic East for consumption by Western audiences. It's curry made with ketchup.


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