Make no mistake: “Sidd” is a train wreck. But there, among the debris, this musical adaptation of Herman Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha” also strews a few hummable tunes, one excellent perf and some unbelievable kitsch. That doesn’t make for great art, but it certainly provides a perverse kind of entertainment.
Much like Hesse’s novel, Andrew Frank and Doug Silver’s tuner follows Sidd (Manu Narayan), a young Indian man who leaves his home on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. But aside from the skeletal plot and a few shared character names, the connection to the source ends right there. Hesse’s work is meditative and serious, whereas “Sidd” is a grab-bag of gimmicks desperately proffered in an attempt to entertain the crowd.
The writers are admittedly clever in exploiting the show’s picaresque storyline. Every new stop on Sidd’s travels introduces him to a fresh group of people (be they forest mystics or greedy city merchants), and Frank and Silver give each crowd its own musical style. Those mystics, for instance, get midtempo balladry, while the merchants get swinging 1920s-style jazz and bowler hats to match.
If Silver and Frank (who also directs) weren’t trying so hard, they could use this setup to display their virtuosity. They clearly have a knack for melody — several of their songs stick pleasantly in the brain — and they’re at home with everything from power ballads to Kander & Ebb-style cool. But their philosophy seems to be “just keep the crowd happy,” so they sacrifice substance for drivel.
That means we get characters like Willie (Dann Fink), a salesman who teaches Sidd about business while using the “bada-bing” slang of a movie gangster. It doesn’t make sense that Sidd, who was in ancient India just moments before, could suddenly be in Depression-era Chicago, but who needs logic when there’s an excuse for some bouncy chords and the “jazz hands” choreography of Fran Kirmser Sharma (who also co-produces)? That’s entertainment!
And for those who love workplace hijinx, it’s mere seconds before Sidd owns a business whose employees use the sassy slang and neck-popping attitude of modern urban comedy. We never learn what Sidd’s business does or how he managed to jump forward another 70 years, but that’s just one more plot hole we’re supposed to ignore while we laugh.
Dismissing the plot would be easier if the production were consistently fun. But for every catchy tune, there are three more with generic melodies and dull rhymes like “You do a little bit of this/And a little bit of that/Mix a little bit of this/With a little bit of that.”
If that doesn’t get a bitter laugh, there’s always Sharma’s choreography for “The Map Song,” in which Sidd and his friend Valerie (Marie-France Arcilla) decide to start their journey. Sharma actually has them lock hands, throw back their heads and spin each other around in a circle, as though they were in the opening credits of “Little House on the Prairie.” Surely even the lowest common denominator doesn’t buy that hoary symbol of innocence anymore.
Meanwhile, the cast hams it up, ready to oversell a joke or ladle on the syrup in a tender moment. The worst offender is Narayan, whose overacting reduces Sidd to a collection of broad gestures.
It’s tempting to blame just the writing for Sidd’s lack of detail, but then Arthur W. Marks appears in one of many small roles and makes them more convincing than anything Narayan attempts. An Off Broadway newcomer, Marks is a star in the making, with a versatile singing voice to match his acting chops. He rises well above his material and delivers actual delight, something the rest of this production too rarely attains.