Arts & Culture » Theater

Bollywood Botch

A Fox production puts the Bomb in Bombay Dreams


The Fox Theatre has found the ideal tenant. The exotic look of Bombay Dreams is so in sync with the Fox's wraparound Siamese Byzantine décor, it's hard to tell where the stage set stops and the walls begin. There's just one problem: Although this musical has found the theater of its dreams, Bombay Dreams is about as exotic as Meet Me in St. Louis.

What a curious evolution this show has undergone. It began as a brainstorm in the ever-fertile mind of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As a youth growing up in England, he liked to spend his Saturday mornings watching movies from India on television. As an adult, theater mogul Webber thought it would be fun (not to mention profitable) to produce a musical that celebrates the South Asian film industry, better known as Bollywood because it's based in Bombay. Statistics alone would suggest that Webber's idea was a winner. Because Bollywood is the world's largest movie industry, if only a handful of the billion-plus patrons who attend its more than 800 movies a year could be persuaded to purchase theater tickets to an extravagant musical inspired by their cherished films, it could, like Webber's Cats, run forever.

At its inception Bombay Dreams was a blend of East and West. The lyrics were written by frequent Webber collaborator Don Black (Sunset Boulevard, Song and Dance), but the tunes came from the prolific pen of renowned Indian composer A.R. Rahman. The arrangements and choreography were true to India. The script was written by Meera Syal, a British writer born to Indian parents. The show, which debuted in London in 2002, did not receive unanimous rave press, but no one could accuse it of inauthenticity.

Bombay Dreams proved to be enough of a crowd pleaser to warrant a Broadway transfer. But now the overriding question became: Would New York theatergoers sit still for sitars? Those who think they know what's best for American audiences revised the show with a buzz saw. The Indian arrangements were rewritten to give the songs a more "Broadway" sound. Although the plot remained essentially the same, droll librettist Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) was hired to punch up the script with jokes. No longer was Bollywood, or even India, the imprimatur for Bombay Dreams; now the show was intended to be Mamma Mia! with saris.

Despite all the "improvements," when it opened on Broadway two years ago Bombay Dreams' reviews set a new standard for vitriol. In hindsight, it would seem that the original London version could not have fared worse. The show managed to survive for eight months. Now it's taken to the road, pared down even from the Broadway version, daring critics to take another whack at it.

Which would be easy to do, simply because there's so little here. Energy perhaps, and a certain amount of insouciance from the cast. But the show itself lacks purpose and sometimes even clarity. Its structure seems to change from scene to scene: At times it purports to be a musical about the making of a movie; at other times the entire evening seems to be a movie. What's going on here? The plot, about Akaash, an "untouchable" who denies his slum roots after he becomes a Bollywood star, is riddled with clichés — to which its creators would reply that that's the point: The Indian films Bombay Dreams is modeled after are themselves cliché-ridden. This plot baldly changes genres, from light comedy to thick melodrama — another Bollywood hallmark. But because Bombay Dreams shares so little information about Bollywood, viewers never really know when, why or even if the musical is being bad on purpose.

Former St. Louisan Sachin Bhatt invests the role of Akaash with verve and charm. His love interest is portrayed by the lustrous Reshma Shetty, whose very presence warrants an evening at the theater. Shetty might have you wishing that this thin musical was longer, just so she'd have more stage time. But most of these actors, despite their talents, have little to work with.

The obvious parallel here is to Singin' in the Rain, the classic film (and now stage) musical set in 1927, just as Hollywood silent movies were turned on their ear by the advent of sound. Singin' in the Rain tells an organic story that builds to the sensational title-song dance number. By contrast, Bombay Dreams has been cobbled together. Like Singin' in the Rain, its most important song also employs an abundance of water. While singing "Shakalaka Baby," cast members are pummeled by dancing fountains. "Shakalaka Baby" is a spoof song intended to show us how wildly wrong things can go on a movie set. Unfortunately, the sequence is more emblematic of the evening as a whole than it meant to be. Over the years a lot of wrong things have been imposed on Bombay Dreams, to the point where all that remains now is a harmless show that has lost the courage of it convictions.

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