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Aisle View: Holler and (Hip) Hop

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There was only moderate hollerin' from the audience at the Monday night preview of Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur jukebox musical at the drastically altered Palace. We could hear them, yes, and loudly; but we couldn't make out much of what they were singing or saying.

Tupac, the influential and best-selling rapper, was gunned down on a Las Vegas street in 1996 at the age of twenty-five. The book of the new musical--by Todd Kreidler, an artistic associate of the late August Wilson--is fictional, although it appears to attempt to recreate Tupac's world. Wilson was interested in the early stages of the project, and we can only guess that things would have turned out mighty differently with the Pulitzer-winner at the typewriter.

The show starts auspiciously, with a fellow in an orange jumpsuit (Saul Williams) descending from the flies in a box-like jail cell, with nothing but a toilet. He immediately hollers the so-called "n" word. (In a society where politicians are pilloried, corporate executives are cashiered, and billionaire sports team owners are banned for life for the like, it is worth noting that they use the infamously derogatory term dozens of times at the Palace. This in a show for which the author and the lead producer are white men.) Our hero then returns to his block--"My Block" serves as the opening number and theme song--and deals with the usual street battles.

Remember that other Broadway musical about an inner city gang whose turf is being invaded by outsiders? The one in which the "good" gang members arrange a street rumble, trying to enlist their former captain to join them even though he wants nothing to do with it and considers the whole thing kid stuff, Daddy-O? And in which said former captain ends up, at the final curtain, senselessly slayed in a pool of stage blood? The purveyors of this new entertainment clearly do remember that musical; Holler is West Side Story without the Shakespeare, and without the romantic subplot. The new show even seems to recycle left-over street-scenery from the West Side revival that recently played the Palace. The creators of Holler also clearly channel Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, with none of the heights.

If the evening--under the direction of Kenny Leon, a recent Tony-winner for A Raisin in the Sun--doesn't offer much of a compelling dramatic nature, it does bring us a handful of intriguing performers. The top-billed Mr. Williams is more of a poet and lecturer than a singer, but he manages to pull off the role of the ex-con moving back to the streets. Christopher Jackson (who created the role of Benny in Into the Heights) and Ben Thompson (a replacement Trunchbull in Matilda) give ingratiating acting and singing performances, as the brother and the friend of the boy whose murder sets off the turf battle.

Tonya Pinkins (of Caroline, or Change) gives a customarily strong performance in the smallish role of the mother of the killed boy, while Saycon Sengbloh (of Fela) does well as the girl John left behind when he went to prison. Also on hand--as a half-crazed street preacher and John's father--is John Earl Jelks, a veteran of Wilson's Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean.

Twenty songs are included; while Tupac is billed as sole lyricist on the title page, the small-print credits list six-to-eight writers per song. (One of them, "Me Against the World," is credited to ten--with the list headed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who I suppose were never in a room with the other eight. Must be a hip hop thing.) Some of these songs--particularly in the second act--turn out to be effective, with a couple that are actually melodically pretty. Mostly, though, they are loud, amplified beyond comprehension, and similar. The overall production is big but without distinction other than in the spectacular work of lighting designer Mike Baldassari.

The Palace itself has been reconfigured to include something akin to stadium seating. Which is to say, the twenty-seven-row orchestra has been displaced by a mere nine rows on risers reaching from the covered-over orchestra pit to the mezzanine rail. (Most of the orchestra section remains in place underneath, so as you enter you file past many hundred forlornly empty seats.) The house then continues upward with the existing mezzanine and second balcony. Thus, six hundred formerly "good seats" have been deconsecrated, while the upper balcony--which has been closed off altogether, as unsellable, for some recent tenants--is necessarily in use. And yes, it's an awfully long hike up there.

Thus we have a noble attempt at shaking up the traditional Broadway theatre, offering a different sort of entertainment for a different sort of audience. This is precisely what Savion Glover and George C. Wolfe attempted in 1996 with their groundbreaking Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. Holler If Ya Hear Me doesn't, alas, offer nearly half as much worth hearing.

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Holler If Ya Hear Me, with book by Todd Kreidler and lyrics by Tupac Shakur, opened June 19, 2014 at the Palace Theatre