After a successful run in London and a not-so-successful one on Broadway, tuner “Bombay Dreams” takes to the road in this energetic touring version that launched in Southern California. Based on the style of Bollywood movies — the thinly plotted musicals that dominate the Indian film industry — “Bombay Dreams” is the very definition of a mixed bag, delivering with spirited fun the big production numbers set to A.R. Rahman’s percussion- and string-heavy score, but never filling the gaps between them with much of interest. In the end, the pros outweigh the cons, since the audience can always keep humming the delightfully inane “Shakalaka Baby” while the book scenes blow by and the ballads bore.
“Bombay Dreams” has some interesting commercial potential on the road, in large part because it does offer audiences something different; it’s not as if South Asian culture were a regular on American stages. At the same time, while it possesses the lure of the exotic, this is a completely accessible, fully mainstream show.
Sachin Bhatt plays Akaash, the poor young man who makes a living by finding tourists he can guide through the slums, explaining to outsiders such cultural phenomena as eunuchs and, even most enticing, Bollywood films, in which for no apparent reason people break out into song and dance. On cue, the community of this Indian slum launches into the first big number. Social realism this is not.
Akaash will, over the course of the show, become a big Bollywood star himself, and he’ll lose his soul for a time before finding it again, with the help of the eunuch Sweetie (Aneesh Sheth), who loves him. He’ll have an affair with film star Rani (Sandra Allen), and he’ll finally get the girl he really wants, Priya (Reshma Shetty).
The book has been tinkered with for a while now. When the show crossed the pond to New York, “Hairspray” collaborator Thomas Sheehan reworked some of Meera Syal’s original book for the London production. Given the comic pedigree of both (Syal is a very funny actress, best known as Granny on “The Kumars at No. 42”), the show should be a lot funnier than it is. Part of the problem stems from the fact that they’re spoofing a genre while also introducing it to an audience unfamiliar with the form. That’s tough to pull off, and they really don’t.
Maybe the cast could have made the sincere parts a bit more affecting, but it’s asking a lot for a performer to move from a love scene to an aerobically challenging production number to a comic take on quick denouements.
Bhatt pulls off what he needs to, emitting some real charm at the start and jiggling ably with the rest of the dancers for the big numbers like “Salaa’m Bombay.”
It’s those numbers that really matter here, anyway. Director Baayork Lee and choreographer Lisa Stevens infuse the right vibrancy into the ensemble sequences, and the design work (the costumes come from the Broadway production, while Kenneth Foy’s sets are new) is nothing if not colorful.
Rahman’s music delivers a great beat, assisted by two percussionists standing on platforms above the stage.
These are the parts of the show — exotic, saturated with color, slightly silly — that take you away, not to some realistic depiction of another world, but to a fantasyland that’s as appealing here as it must be in South Asia.