Tupac Shakur. Palace Theatre. Broadway’s newest odd couple. What’s really odd is that the producers of this new hip-hop-rap musical have redesigned the orchestra section of the Palace Theatre – at what must have been a considerable expense – to make it more intimate. Losing about half the number of seats in the process. We now have “stadium seating” – the seats are no larger however nor are they more comfortable. Only closer to what is happening on stage.
And what is happening on the black bare bones stage with a few movable steps standing in as the stoops of the “hood” has some very mixed results. A bit of background.
For those uninitiated – myself included – Tupac Shakur has sold over 75 million albums. His rise to fame as a poet and actor (circa 1991-1995) with his very special brand of hip-hop-rap was intensely passionate and political – touching upon the plight of the niggers (the show uses this word freely) in his East Harlem ghetto neighborhood, their trouble with each other and the whites, peace, love, sex, gangs, poverty, violence and hope. All written while in his twenties.
He was an angry, militant young man who had a high regard for his mother and all that she did for him. He was shot dead in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas when he was 25. He was born of June 16th 1971. HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME opened on June 19th 2014 – a very belated birthday gift from the dedicated creative team.
I suppose he would be honored by this tribute to his soul and his music. It is claimed that this is not a bio-musical. But all of the songs used are biographical – coming from the man himself – his passionate beliefs bared in rap.
All of his stories are shoe horned into a new book by Todd Kreidler who has moved the ghetto to MY BLOCK in a Mid-Western industrial city. With an assortment of characters to voice Tupac’s thoughts. The time is now. The songs are from the 90’s – given new arrangements and orchestrations by Daryl Waters. Unfortunately there is little to be done with gangsta rap. The rhythms pulsate as the words spew forth. However Tupac’s themes of entrapment, despair and pain are timeless.
Kenny Leon, a magnificent director who has just received the Tony for the acclaimed revival of A RASIN IN THE SUN (which has just closed) helms this large and very talented cast. He seems out of his element here directing a musical and does not receive much help from his choreographer Wayne Cilento.
Musical numbers fade out. The show doesn’t catch fire as we follow John (Saul Williams) who has just gotten out of jail and tries to get back his life in the old hood (that is dealing with the aftermath of a tragic shooting), attempting to reconnect and get a job at the garage that is owned by whites. Griffy (Ben Thompson) is running the place as his dad is dying in a hospice as a homeless street preacher (John Earl Jelks) wanders around with megaphone and Bible.
John attempts to rekindle the sparks with Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) a fine “Unconditional Love” – the next best thing that you’ll get to a traditional song.
Christopher Jackson plays friend Vertus who gets to sing the best number “Dear Mama” to Tonya Pinkins.
But the real revelation is Ben Thompson who gives great meaning to the rap number “California Love” strumming on his guitar atop a purple Cadillac newly refurbished at the garage. He puts meaning and emotion behind the words – he doesn’t just rap them out.
As I left the show I had to walk past all those empty orchestra seats that reminded me of the rows of headstones at Arlington Cemetery. An eerie ending to HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME.
Photos: Joan Marcus
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