The high ambition of “Wah! Wah! Girls” is to graft together the exuberant excesses of Bollywood movies and Western musical theater, in order to capture the spirit of today’s London, in all its multicultural, Olympic-hosting glory. But while the energy emanating from the stage of the Peacock Theater could fuel several sports stadiums, the show stumbles in its attempts to fuse entertainment traditions, because of a baggy narrative conceit, performers unable to meet the show’s quadruple-threat challenges, and bland original songs that suffer in comparison to the piped-in Bollywood hits with which they’re interspersed.
Given her strong history transposing beloved films (“Brief Encounter,” “A Matter of Life and Death”) to live stage settings, Emma Rice was a canny choice as helmer, and aptly stumps for an shambolic, out-of-season-Christmas-pantomime tone, aided by Keith Khan’s drolly economical set design of sheer curtains painted with backdrop scenery, pulled on and off by stagehands dressed in hooded tracksuits. Her sure hand falters, though, in trying to bring together all the disparate elements here.
At its heart this is the story of three strong women of Indian descent living in London: fortyish Soraya (the stunning Sophiya Haque), a courtesan-turned-dance-hall-owner; Sita (appealing Rebecca Grant), a rebellious teenager from Leeds who runs away from a repressive home to dance in Soraya’s troupe; and Bindi (Rina Fatania, never short of hilarious), a middle-aged busybody who, in the outermost of an overcomplicated series of narrative frames, watches the whole story of Sita and Soraya unfold on TV, frequently hoisting herself out of her oversized leather armchair to join the action as various characters.
Flashbacks of Soraya’s life in India, which reveal the hyper-melodramatic reasons for her eventual flight to the U.K., allow for the staging of traditional Kathak dance routines, to which the performers lip-synch in typical Hindi film style. The entrancing fluidity of Haque’s performance, backed up by the skilled dance ensemble, make these moments the evening’s highlights. Contemporary musical numbers are more sporadically successful: while routines bringing together Bollywood choreography with hip-hop and street dance, advancing the story of Sita’s integration into Soraya’s world, are often winning fun, a reggae paeon to the marvels of London, sung by Soraya’s black British love interest Cal (Delroy Atkinson) and a comic number that styles local handyman Pavel (Philip Brodie) as a Polish superhero, overstretch the melting pot theme. The further presence of a pretty young woman dressed as a bird (Japjit Kaur), periodically singing in Hindi and seeming to represent the spirit of love and harmony, consistently threatens to topple the evening into a rubble of thematic overload.
With the heroic exception of Haque, none of the performers move with complete comfort between Western and Indian dance styles; the exaggerated acting that the tone of Gupta’s book requires; and singing (though poor sound mixing makes it hard to discern anyone’s vocal talents, in particular Kaur’s). The knowingly slapdash look of Khan’s sets contrasts with Malcom Roppeth’s elaborate lighting plan, which adds excitement to the dance numbers, and Khan’s beautiful and detailed costumes.
Show is scheduled for a month-long run in central London and then returns in September at Theater Royal Stratford East, the latter stint doubtless intended to fill the post-Games void in the East London area where the Olympic village and stadiums are located. While auds of Indian subcontinent descent and Bollywood fans seem likely to appreciate its knowing references, and it’s hard not to be won over to some extent by its puppyish exuberance, overall the show’s unevenness and excesses do not destine it for crossover, mainstream success.