Salaa’m Bombay! And haven’t we met somewhere before? The gaudy hues of the sets and costumes may be unfamiliar, and the seductive music certainly has a fresh tang, but look beneath the colorful trappings of “Bombay Dreams” and you’ll find something less exotic. This Bollywood-inspired stage musical, Broadway’s latest import from London, tells the story of a starry-eyed young man from the slums who, against all odds, makes it big in showbiz, only to find that the heady blandishments of fame are worthless baubles.
Ring any chimes? Broadway has already been down this cliche-paved road twice this season, in the musical about the young man from the Australian sticks who flared big and flamed out in 1970s New York, and the one about the young man from the British suburbs who did the same in the London nightclub scene in the 1980s. While “Bombay Dreams” inarguably has the spiciest backdrop, it is no more successful at breathing new life into the rusty mechanics of its plot than either “The Boy From Oz” or “Taboo.” Like those mostly misbegotten musicals, it’s synthetic at its core.
Produced in London by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Bombay Dreams” has been substantially revised for Broadway. Composer A R Rahman, whose beguiling music is both the show’s chief asset and its primary victim, has supplied five new songs. A few others have been eliminated (most notably “Like an Eagle,” the hero’s big pop anthem from the first act). Broadway’s book doctor du jour, Thomas Meehan (“The Producers,” “Hairspray”), was called in to tame the more outlandishly silly excesses of Meera Syal’s original.
Gone is the cackling villain out of a “Scooby-Doo” cartoon, thank goodness. But the vulgar excesses of the London production were at least a distraction from the insipid plotting. The streamlined Broadway version, more cleanly structured, is blander, and the worn-to-the-stump banalities of the storyline are no less prominent.
Akaash (Manu Narayan), the hero, is a spunky kid from a steaming slum called Paradise on the outskirts of Bombay. He dreams of Bollywood stardom, so he can buy the land the slum sits on and save it from greedy industrialists.
Following a head-spinning series of contrivances — or “big Bollywood coincidences,” as the persistently shrugging book has it — Akaash quickly realizes his dream, only to turn his back on his dear old granny (Madhur Jaffrey) and his best childhood pal, the sharp-tongued, sweet-hearted eunuch Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan). (“Taboo” had drag queens, and “Boy From Oz” had Liza and Judy, but “Bombay Dreams” goes ’em one better.)
Before the bulldozers can move in, Akaash has had a change of heart, of course, and he abandons the plush but empty trappings of stardom — primarily the embrace of his plush but empty co-star Rani (Ayesha Dharker) — to proclaim solidarity with his people. He also foils the bad guy, who happens to be the fiance of Akaash’s true love, the socially conscious filmmaker Priya (Anisha Nagarajan).
Tolerance for the musical’s inanities may vary in accordance with one’s affection for same in the movies that inspired it. (I always cherish a good kick-the-gun-from-bad-guy’s-hand move, so familiar from “Charlie’s Angels” episodes of yore.) Just as Hugh Jackman did in “The Boy From Oz,” Narayan’s Akaash not infrequently steps out of his story to smilingly apologize to the audience for a particularly suspect turn of events. But sari-wrapped contrivances are still contrived.
And, in truth, the saris here are woven from suspiciously synthetic fibers. The most dispiriting thing about “Bombay Dreams” is that, Rahman’s music aside, its ethnicity feels ersatz. A brief glance at the lovely, sinuously graceful dancing and choreography in a Bollywood film reveals how the Vegas-ready aesthetic of Anthony Van Laast (“Mamma Mia!”) appears to have run roughshod over the contributions of Bollywood’s Farah Khan, his collaborator. Mark Thompson’s sets don’t really evoke the distinctive, glitzy grandeur of Bollywood either — they often have a plastic, factory-produced look: Barbie’s Bombay Dream House.
Rahman’s alluring music, on the other hand, gives the show some real integrity. The promise of the musical’s wordless opening moments, in which soft, shimmering chords gradually build to a stirring climax, is borne out by Rahman’s continually enticing score. The composer provides richly rhythmic, jangling tunes for the splashy dance numbers, and can also write honorably in contemporary Western idioms. The hero’s soaring solo in the second act, “The Journey Home,” is a fine piece of pop balladry. (One does wish, however, that Rahman had resisted the idea of a rap tune for Akaash’s star-making moment, a dubious and desperate addition for Broadway.) The layered textures of Rahman’s percussion and string writing give the ear something to concentrate on when exasperation sets in at the clunky gracelessness of Don Black’s lyrics.
The evening’s performers also deserve a measure of praise. In the central role of Akaash, the lean, lively Narayan is a bit slick and ingratiating in the early scenes, but eventually settles down to give an appealing performance. If he is not the boundless charmer who could transcend the gauche simplicities of the characterization, he nevertheless acquits himself with honor.
Nagarajan is pert and spirited as filmmaker Priya, Akaash’s real love. Dharker, who created the role in London, provides the show with some enjoyable sass as the rapacious Rani. Ganesan gives a spirited, crowdpleasing turn as the martyred eunuch Sweetie.
Fine singers though they are, the leading performers have not mastered the distinctive, fluttering vocal style of authentic Indian music. But that’s hardly surprising. “Bombay Dreams” plainly does not provide the illuminating immersion in an exotic culture that you might hope for.
And yet it breaks new ground on Broadway in at least one respect. “Shakalaka Baby,” the show’s big production number from act one, replete with the dancing fountains that are a Bollywood staple, is entirely lip-synched. That seems somehow appropriate: “Bombay Dreams” itself has a karaoke kind of feeling, a secondhand flavor. The musical ultimately comes across as a bloated, shallow attempt to repackage the exotic East for consumption by Western audiences. It’s curry made with ketchup.