Having written about l-o-v-e in several of its permutations (“Big Love,” “True Love,” etc.), Charles Mee now applies his romantic touch to … let’s call it neighborly love. In “Queens Boulevard (the musical),” the Signature’s current scribe-in-residence plants a big sloppy kiss on a NYC borough where nearly half the residents are foreign born. Helmer Davis McCallum’s gaudy production views the neighborhood as whimsically as does the play, which plucks from a cornucopia of literary and musical sources to assemble its modern fable — based on a classic tale from India — about love connections in the ‘hood.
Inspired, as it were, by the Kathakali play “The Flower of Good Fortune,” Mee re-constitutes his deconstructed jigsaw-plot pieces around the central story of a young bride and groom who become so distracted by the world around them they almost lose sight of one another. And who could blame them, given the exuberant chaos of Mimi Lien’s set — a flamboyant collage of the multi-ethnic shops, eateries and small businesses that have remade seedy old Queens Boulevard into a bustling foreign bazaar.
Vijay (Amir Arison in his latest manifestation as a young god) and his bride Shizuko (the equally enchanting Michi Barall) couldn’t be cuter as they dance at their wedding to the musical babble produced by their respective cultural heritages. The untranslated Japanese and Indian songs are incomprehensible, but the energy level is high and choreographer Peter Pucci smartly channels it into giddy wedding dances.
When the celebrations are over, Vijay leaves his bride alone at home so he can search for a gift worthy of her — the mythical “Flower of Heaven.” But once he starts making the rounds of Queens Boulevard, his neighbors draw him deeper into their own life-dramas, appealing to his affections and sense of responsibility for his multicultural neighborhood.
Innocent lad that he is, Vijay is a sucker for a good pitch. His friend Abdi (Arian Moayed) first enlists him as a mourner at his mother’s funeral and then hustles him into an Irish bar where he runs into an old girlfriend. Before he knows it, the wandering hero has bounced from a Russian bathhouse (the setting for an imaginative piece of choreography) to a neonatal ward to a nightclub to jail. Somehow, Vijay just misses running into Shizuko, lured out of the house and into the hot spots of Queens by her good-time girlfriends.
There’s a story to be told at each stop along the way, and admirers of the scribe’s cut-and-paste craftsmanship will no doubt find satisfaction in tracing each tale’s literary origins. (Homer and Ono No Komachi are among the many cited.) The average audience member, however, will find the scenes wildly inconsistent in quality, pertinence and performance, in need of sharper editing and tighter staging to keep them in their place.
But the wobbly focus might be an inevitable by-product of the piece’s muddled message. On the one hand, Vijay is cautioned not to let marital love cut him off from his United Nations neighborhood. “You don’t seem to recognize the responsibilities of family and community,” he is chided. On the other hand, the moral of the fable is to teach the young groom to resist worldly distractions from his first responsibility — to his wife.
So go figure — or, better yet, don’t even try.