By: David Sheward
The advertising copy for Holler If Ya Hear Me proclaims the show as a groundbreaking new musical in the tradi
tion of Show Boat, West Side Story, Hair, and Rent. There is some truth in this hype. This is the first Broadway show to fully employ the rap sound which has been dominating the music industry for two decades. (In the Heights contains rap elements, but its score is mostly in the conventional Main Stem vein.) Holler uses the music and lyrics of the late Tupac Shakur with very little traditional singing.
Almost all of the songs are delivered in the talk-rap style and Daryl Waters, credited with music supervision, orchestration and arrangements, has done an exemplary job of molding Shakur’s dynamic, gritty anthems of love, rage, and frustration to a theatrical setting.
While the form is indeed new-for Broadway that is-Todd Kriedler’s book is as clichéd as a 1930s Warner Brothers flick. The central story of an ex-con attempting to go straight but being drawn back into his criminal past is as old as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids. Instead of employing a biographical approach, a la Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kriedler uses Shakur’s oeuvre to tell a fictional, familiar story. John, an aspiring poet and artist, has just been released from prison and wants only to earn enough at the local garage to pay his rent and be left in peace. But his friend Benny has been killed in a drive-by shooting and Benny’s brother Vertus, an enterprising drug dealer, is being shaken down by a rival gang of young upstarts. (Just like Tony being dragged back into the Jets in West Side Story.) Will John scrap his future and go back to those mean streets? Three guesses as to what happens. It’s hard to care about these characters because the structure is so shopworn and undeveloped. Even the time and setting are vague. The program proclaims them as "Now" and "on My Block, a Midwestern industrial city."
Fortunately, director Kenny Leon (who just won a Tony for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun) infuses the staging with vitality and Wayne Cilento provides fresh, explosive choreography. Mike Baldassari’s lighting and Zachary Borovay’s projections deserve special mention for their exciting, concert-like effects and ability to shift the scene from realism to the fantasy world of John’s lyrics and drawings. John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design is high in volume, but too often gets blurry so the words are incomprehensible, a major drawback in a show celebrating words as a means of expression.
The cast also adds dimension to Kreidler’s thin creations. Rap artist Saul Williams captures John’s edgy fury and his musical performances of Shakur’s bombastic lyrics are like volcanic eruptions. Tonya Pinkins gives a new variation on the supportive mother role and John Earl Jelks is infinitely moving as a brain-damaged street preacher. Saycon Sengbloh finds depth in the long-suffering girlfriend part and gives a lovely rendition of Shakur’s hit "Unconditional Love" with Williams.
Shakur himself was a victim of the senseless violence depicted here and it’s refreshing to see that reality and a segment of America not usually reflected on Broadway. Too bad this Holler is more like a shout we’ve heard before.
Holler If Ya Hear Me Opened June 19 for an open run. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, NYC. Mon.-Tues., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 2 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. $59-$139. (877) 250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com.
Photos: Joan Marcus