Book by Todd Kriedler; Lyrics by Tupac Shakur; Directed by Kenny Leon
Broadway, New Musical
Runs through 7.20.14
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway
by Weston Clay on 6.19.14
Tonya Pinkins and Christopher Jackson in Holler If Ya Hear Me. Photo by Jane Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A bold and brave new musical that uses the music of Tupac Shakur to tell a story about the plight of black Americans.
"Tupac on Broadway." Just putting those words together feels problematic. Tupac Shakur, considered one of the best rappers in history, is a far cry from say, Aladdin or Matilda or even Rocky, all of which seem, in one way or another, to translate naturally to the most commercialized theatre in America, if not the world.
But Tupac is different. Though he was very successful, commercially speaking, this came on the heels of something far more genuine. He was a great entertainer, but his real role was to give a voice to a disenfranchised, stereotyped, misunderstood and widely-feared group of people: black men. So to translate this voice to musical Broadway, which is famous for putting glitz, glam and spectacle before anything else, feels like it could easily miss the mark or, even worse, just be a scheme to capitalize off of a dead man’s fame.
So the big question about Holler If Ya Hear Me is: will Tupac be turning over in his grave?
Holler If Ya Hear Me isn’t Tupac’s story, which is the first wise choice that it makes. Rather than attempt to resurrect a legend through biography (first question: who on earth could possibly play Tupac?) it instead creates a fictional story about a group of people dealing with the issues that Tupac addressed in his music: poverty, gang violence, disenfranchisement, racism, as well as love, family, camaraderie, and perseverance in the face of constant adversity.
The incredibly talented stage poet Saul Williams, who’s making his Broadway debut, stars at John, a man who is trying to build a better life for himself after being released from prison. He and his group of friends are shaken when one of their own is shot dead by a rival gang, the four-fives, an event which sparks a debate: do they seek revenge against those who killed their friend or do they let it go, understanding that violence begets violence in a sad and endless cycle?
Thematically, the story stays close to Tupac’s music, and it’s often chilling to see these tough issues addressed head-on on a Broadway stage. Plot-wise, the story is a little weaker and there were some moments when I found myself a little confused about what was happening, but this can largely be explained by the way the show was constructed: Tupac’s songs came first, and the story was spun out of them. These songs weren't written with a coherently-plotted musical in mind. On the part of writer Todd Kreidler, though, it’s a well-intentioned and valiant effort and it’s fun to see how Tupac's thematically-broad collection of songs are used to give different voices to different characters.
A great example of this is the “I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up” montage midway through the first act. “I Get Around” is performed by the men who, to borrow the hip hop terminology, are total players -- they pride themselves on being untamable by any one woman. The women come back at them with “Keep Ya Head Up,” in which they commiserate with and offer support to each other over the consequences they must bear while dealing with unaccountable males. The result is a West Side Story-style showdown and it’s both fun and thought-provoking.
Even better is “Changes,” from which the writers have brilliantly extracted two distinct voices: that of John, and that of Griffin (played by Ben Thompson, holding his own as the only white cast member), who fails to understand the intricacies of the black community that he can’t quite penetrate, even while he is practically immersed in it. In John and Griffin’s back-and-forth, the lyrics of "Changes" become a debate between two people who don't see eye to eye. It's a brilliant reworking of the song (without, amazingly, any notable alteration) and its incredible how well it fits together.
It’s the spirit of Tupac's music that formulates Holler If Ya Hear Me’s most successful moments. And, interestingly, these tend to be the least characteristically Broadway moments of the show. The aggressive, driving numbers like “My Block” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which both prominently feature Williams, are like nothing you’ve seen on Broadway before. They feel edgy and risky and a little scary, like they might just alienate many of your usual Broadway theatre-goers. But this can only be a good thing. These voices need to be heard, these issues addressed.
At other times the performers sing as a chorus in a style that sounds very much like Broadway -- comparable to something like the music from Rent. At those moments, it feels like the spirit of the show is waning and towing the line that, I’d imagine, a lot of Tupac’s admirers would be nervous about with this show: it feels a little cheesy. Luckily, these moments, which feel like transgressions, don't happen that often.
All that aside, the true force of the show is the cast. Sure, with his well-versed lyrical delivery, Saul Williams is fantastic -- and we all expected him to be -- but he is also surrounded by a very large cast without, as far as I could see, a single weak link.
The main players all have their moments to shine. Christopher Jackson as Vertus gives a heartfelt serenade to his mother Mrs. Weston (the great Tonya Pinkins) with the song “Dear Mama.” Joshua Boone as Darius is chilling with “Hail Mary,” one of the darker moments in the show. Dyllon Burnside as Anthony, the youngest of the crew who longs to prove himself by seeking revenge on the four-fives despite warnings from his older and wiser friends, hits it right with “If I Die 2Nite.”
Add to that a chorus that brings to life the talent and originality within hip hop culture, from rapping to break dancing to double-dutch rope skipping, and the result is an amazing representation of hip hop on Broadway. The costumes (Reggie Ray), the set (Edward Pierce), and the lighting (Mike Baldassari) all also contribute beautifully to the world of the show.
Back to the big question, the one that can really make or break the spirit of the show: What would Tupac think of Holler If Ya Hear Me? I had to venture a guess it would be this: I think he would be a bit jolted to see his work in this context -- it’s such a long, long way from the place that inspired him -- but I think he would love to see the talents of so many young black artists being showcased on such a prominent stage and, in all truthfulness, they do a damn fine job delivering his lyrics as well.
(Holler If Ya Hear Me plays at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, through July 20, 2014. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. Tickets are $68-$149 and are available at ticketmaster.com or by calling 877.250.2929. More show info at hollerifyahearme.com.)