Despite its soaring performances, this musical treatment of the works of Tupac Shakur places its searing source material in service of a generic gangland saga.
Here’s the big question that should be on the minds of the producers of “Holler If Ya Hear Me”: Now that we’ve built it, will they come? The quick answer: Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the marketing campaign. That’s the gamble investors took on this musical treatment of works left behind by Tupac Shakur, the now-sainted rap artist who died at the age of 25 in a 1996 drive-by shooting. Despite a clunky book, this show is on fire. But it’s going to be a hard sell with traditional auds, and can the real fans spring for Broadway ticket prices?
The tuner’s fictional stand-in for Shakur is played by slam poet and performer Saul Williams, as combustible as a stick of dynamite. The musical numbers are so uplifting you’ll think you’re in church. The creatives, including Edward Pierce (sets) and Mike Baldassari (lighting), have contributed some great arena-style stage effects. And by sectioning off 318 orchestra seats, a portion of the Palace Theater has been turned into a talk-back auditorium and hip-hop museum. So, what’s the problem?
The true believers won’t care about such pedestrian matters as the predictable book and clumsy characterizations. But for less committed theatergoers — who might yet indulge because they had a good time at “In the Heights” and “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” and those rappers and hip-hop artists they discovered at the Public — here’s what you need to know.
The music (arranged, orchestrated and supervised by Broadway man of steel Daryl Waters for a 10-piece orchestra) is terrific: percussive, propulsive, insistently danceable and surprisingly tuneful. But the performers are so overly miked that the lyrics are almost unintelligible. This won’t matter to hardcore fans who have memorized and taken to heart every blessed word of their idol’s literary output. But for the rest of the house, who showed up to hear the writings of a famous street poet, it’s maddening to have to keep scanning everyone in this huge, hard-working cast (some 30 strong, plus a couple of swings) to see whose lips are moving.
The other major drawback is that the story told in Todd Kreidler’s book isn’t the story we want to hear. It’s not the life of Tupac Shakur, because the creatives don’t have the rights to his biographical narrative. Instead, it’s the generic tale of a thug named John (Williams) who comes out of prison determined to go straight, only to be drawn back into the violent gang culture of the neighborhood by friends who demand his undying loyalty to the clan philosophy of life-as-war.
Williams is not only a published poet and hip-hop artist (with a degree in philosophy and a musical of his own in the works), but also a performer with ferocious attitude. That makes him a primo interpreter of Shakur, a literary hardass whose lyrical tongue distinguished him within his gangsta-rap milieu.
That fierce sensibility is stamped all over the show, most insistently in “Me Against the World,” “Thugz Mansion” and the incendiary title song, “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which closes the first act. The drawback, however, is that all that bristling rage feels like overkill for a surly fictional character whose complaints are vague and unspecific. (For the record, Todd Kreidler, who labored over the book, would prefer to think of John’s generic grievances as “universal.”)
Simpatico helmer Kenny Leon (who earned a Tony nom this season for “A Raisin in the Sun”) and choreographer Wayne Cilento (a perennial Broadway presence with “Wicked”) have made shrewd work of placing the individual songs in strategic places in the book. “My Block,” staged as an exuberant dance number for a fresh-faced and vital chorus of inexhaustible singer-dancers, is a dynamic introduction to the tightly knit neighborhood that welcomes John home from prison. The deeply felt “Dear Mama” is beautifully sung by Christopher Jackson, as a reluctant gangbanger who’s not sure he’ll survive his next fight. And “If I Die 2Nite” is the tense anthem of John’s street gang, arming themselves for battle.
But while the musical numbers and sung-through poems fit snugly into the story, the story doesn’t support them. Unlike “In the Heights,” which celebrated a specific group of people (Dominicans) from a specific neighborhood (Washington Heights) in a specific city (New York), “Holler If Ya Hear Me” observes ill-defined characters inhabiting some indeterminate place and time.
There’s the hero (Williams), his girlfriend (Saycon Sengbloh), the determined warrior (Joshua Boone), the reluctant warrior (Jackson), the baby boy who wants to make his bones (Dyllon Burnside), the token white friend (Ben Thompson), the mad street prophet (John Earl Jelks) and the madonna mother (Tonya Pinkins) — and their friends. The performers are top-of-the-line and the characters literally owe their lives to them. For that matter, the show does, too.