Tea With Chachaji

Book and Lyrics by Gwynne Watkins; Music by Denver Casado
Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj

Jose Sepulveda, Tony Mirrcandani, Stephanie Klemons, Raja Burrows and Soneela Nankani. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A wonderful, informative and emotional musical journey that brings home the importance of family and tradition.

There are few pleasures for me like attending theatre with my kids, and Theasy made it happen with tickets to this heartfelt new musical for families. We drove into Manhattan, did running races through the construction sites downtown, looked at some sculptures on the grounds of the Borough of Manahattan Community College (where the Tribeca Performing Arts Center sits), and saw a really fun show. Lex, the six-year old, watched with intensity and when his attention flagged (as it does when you’re 6) he climbed into my lap and cuddled. Zeke, the nine-year old, was fascinated with the Indian stories and asked great questions of the actors and creators in the talkback session at the performance we attended. It was all in all the kind of afternoon that liberal, arty dads like me have dreamed of since we were teens.

And the show was great, too.

Tea With Chachaji is adapted from the book Chachaji’s Cup by Uma Krishnaswami with Illustrations by Soumya Sitaraman. Ten year old Neel, (that’s the Indian spelling) lives in the Little India section of Queens with his mother and Chachaji (a nickname for his Great Uncle), where the sounds and smells of Delhi rise from the shops and the women brighten the city streets with their vibrant saris. He also goes to a tony Manhattan private school so that he can fulfill the promise of his deceased father, a doctor, and his mother, a nurse who dreamed of being a painter. Specifically, he’s trying to go to Harvard Med to be a surgeon six months of the year and train in traditional Indian dance so he can be a Bollywood star the other six. Just your average immigrant superstar son, right?

His mother adores him and puts all her faith in him, and his Chachaji keeps him rooted in the traditional ways with the fantastic tales of his homeland and the many Indian Gods; Neel’s favorites are Ganesh the Elephant God and Hanuman, the loyal Monkey Spirit. Their relationship is real and engagingly performed by Raja Burrows (Neel) and Tony Mirrcandani (Chachaji).

As Neel gets older, he becomes more and more an American teenager, wanting to play video games and basketball with his Latino best friend Daniel (an energetic and thoroughly charming Jose Sepulveda). But Chachaji is sick, and Neel’s mother has to work overtime to pay for his treatments, leaving Neel with much of the housework on top of his already loaded schedule. When Neel’s simmering adolescent resentment runs amok, a precious family heirloom is broken, and possibly the family along with it.

With Daniel’s help, Neel realizes that like Hanuman, he is made stronger – as strong as a thousand-foot monkey – by his love for his family. The two of them head to the hospital to heal Chachaji with a story, just as Chachaji devotedly nurtured Neel’s life with the same.

If you need to know how it all ends, suffice to say I am tearing up even as write this two days later.

Watkins and Casado have teamed up with director/choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj to harness the best of Broadway story structure, complete with fun dance numbers, emotional narrative pieces, and stirring solo lines. The staging and design are minimal and evocative, with a well-placed circular video projection screen upstage center, which serves as a visual scene-setter, giving us New York, India, and a host of other places in a few short images. The cast is uniformly strong, and the ensemble work is excellent, particularly in the stirring central section, which recounts the horrendous division of Hindu society into the current nations of India and Pakistan.

You might not think that an 80-minute children’s musical can pack all this wallop and deliver a history lesson, but this one does. Brought to us by the youth theatre company Making Books Sing (co-founded by Barbara Zinn Kreiger, the original founder of New York’s well-known downtown Vineyard Theatre), a company which brings books to life in theatre format, this is smart writing at its best.

My one qualm, and it shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing the show, would be the politics of ethnicity. While the writers and director clearly are well-researched in their Bollywood and Indian dance, and the score cleverly integrates Indian motifs and instruments (played by an excellent three-piece onstage band under the direction of Tim Rosser), the show is Broadway Americana right from the start, created by a writing team that by their own admission had no familiarity with India or its traditions at all. Now one could look at this as the ultimate in hyphenated Ethno-Americanism. But one could also look at this Indian story, from an Indian book by Indian writers and ask why there were no Indians writing the musical. It’s a small point, and might smack of a quota-based idealism that is passé in our post-racial world (Yes, we can!), but it did occur to me as I saw the intricate modal melodies of India vigorously stirred into the strong stock of (quite excellent) Broadway song writing.

On second thought, forget it. The show is too good to worry about these egg-head academic issues. Just grab your kids, your parents, your uncles and anyone else with a big heart and head on down to one of the show’s venues and have a good time. Namaste!

(Tea With Chachaji has ended its short run at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. It plays next at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, 2001 Oriental Blvd. February 8 through 11 at 10:30am. Next, it moves to Stanford, CA at Stanford Lively Arts, 537 Lomita Mall. Tickets  are $16 for individuals and $8.50 for school groups and can be purchased by calling 212-573-8791 or online at