What a Sari-full Mess

What a Sari-full Mess

‘Bombay Dreams’ recalls all the very worst of Andrew Lloyd Webber

There is very little suspense in the new musical “Bombay Dreams” now at the Broadway Theatre

In fact, you know you’re in trouble within the first 16 bars of the score—deep trouble as a kind of resignation sets in with the realization that for all the glitz, there’s no real energy driving what’s happening onstage. Despite splendid sets and costumes, enthusiastic (and in a few cases quite good) performances by the huge cast, “Bombay Dreams” is derivative, an echo of the gimmickry and manipulative emotions of Andrew Lloyd Webber, this show’s producer, at his worst. Instead of the junk heap set of “Cats,” we have the junk-infested slums of the poorest of the poor. Instead of a visual trick that simulates a helicopter, we have a monumental fountain. Everything is suffused with low-rent bathos, simplistic wannabe pop tunes, and an awful book by Meera Syal, not helped at all by the usually adroit Thomas Meehan.

The cartoonish plot follows the exploits of Akaash, an “untouchable” from the slums as he tries to break into the Bollywood film industry. Only by becoming a rich movie star can he buy the land on which his family and friends live. And, wouldn’t you know, this almost happens. He meets a documentary filmmaker slumming to do research and gets a part on a TV show that he turns into an opportunity to be a movie star. And before you can say “Mickey and Judy,” Akaash becomes India’s biggest star. But we all know that even stars have their trials, and Akaash brings on his own by turning his back on the people who made him—particularly the eunuch Sweetie and his grandmother—at his big opening. He falls in love with a documentary filmmaker, Priya, but she’s engaged, so he turns his attentions to his co-star, also secretly from the slums, named Rani, who tells him they must both deny their homes and upbringing to remain stars.

This is the show’s tension, especially when a plan emerges to tear down the slums where Akaash and Rani grew up. The baddie is Priya’s fiancé, who betrays the slum dwellers with his plan to destroy their homes so he can build and become richer.

I’ve read the materials that tell me this story mirrors the Bollywood movies, but, really, who cares? A bad show is a bad show, no matter what the source material.

The flat and often tuneless score by A.R. Rahman uses every cliché of the Lloyd Webber formula. There’s the cheesy love song “Love’s Never Easy,” the repetitive production number “Shakalaka Baby,” and the would-be tearjerker “The Journey Home.” None of these songs ever achieves anything like a real emotion and you won’t be humming the score on the way out of the theater. The lyrics by Don Black consist of one groaner after another. My personal favorite was “no watching porno on the Web/when you become a big celeb.” You get the idea.

The sets and costumes, both by Mark Thompson, are wonderful. The trick of getting the fountain to work is pretty impressive, if silly. And the costumes are colorful and move well, but design is not enough reason to see this show.

The choreography by Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan is uninspired, or rather, looks like it’s been inspired by a Janet Jackson video, which means it’s aggressively athletic but emotionally dead.

But the cast works hard; the show has at least that much going for it. Best of all are Anisha Nagarajana as Priya, Ayesha Dharker as Rani, and Sriram Ganesan as Sweetie. Also good are Madhur Jaffrey as Shanti—the only person who seems truly real—in her role as the family matriarch. Manu Naryan tries hard as Akaash, but he is seldom believable in any of his moments, though he pushes himself relentlessly throughout.

This show isn’t anything more than a tired retread of the big machine musicals of the 1990s, and it’s astonishing to see that it’s more dated than “Wonderful Town,” nearly 50 years its senior. But for all its efforts to take us “somewhere we’ve never been before,” we end up in an all-too-familiar place, as there is a lot more bomb than Bombay about this show.

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