One wouldn’t think that rapper and poet Tupac Shakur and the Beach Boys had much in common — at least until now. What they share — as of this month — are jukebox musicals based on their work that take their game-changing art and reduce it to a predictable show that does the music no favors. You’ve probably forgotten “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys musical that closed more than nine years ago. “Holler If Ya Hear Me” probably won’t fare much better.
And it didn’t have to be this way. Music and poetry that celebrated “thug life” and a Broadway theater may not seem a good fit. But darkness and violence are often seen on stage — take Shakespeare. The real problem with this show is that book writer Todd Kreidler didn’t trust the original material and has written a story that blunts its artistry and softens the edges of Skakur’s lyrics, trying to make drug dealing and violence play to a wider audience. The result is a story that’s pallid and predictable, riddled with stereotypes and clichés.
If they are so afraid of Shakur’s work, why did they bother in the first place? Had Kreidler truly embraced it, the show could have been something remarkable, rather than a pale copy of “In the Heights.”
Two musicals collapse under their own weight
That said, there are some amazing performances in this show. Saul Williams plays John, a man just released from prison who is trying to go straight. When allowed to abandon himself in the songs, he is a powerhouse of precision and focus that takes your breath away. Christopher Jackson as Vertus, a gangster wannabe, is equally outstanding. Tonya Pinkins plays a generic, long-suffering mother, but her singing, as always, is perfect. In fact, the entire company is strong.
Director Kenny Leon is at his best working with the songs, making them clear and compelling, mining them for the drama and power the book doesn’t provide. Wayne Cilento’s choreography is consistently exciting and sharp. Good as these are, they are not enough to compensate for the lack of vision that made a mediocre, conventional run-of-the-mill show out of a very un-conventional artist’s exciting vision.
Besides some game actors and another brilliantly ingenious set by David Korins, there was absolutely nothing to recommend “Fly By Night,” the “new” musical that closed last week at Playwright’s Horizons. This derivative, dirge-filled disaster cherry-picks characters and plot points from plays and musicals you might actually enjoy seeing and cobbles them together into a stultifying mess.
So, let’s see. We’ll start with the folksy narrator who sometimes takes part in the action. (Cribbed from “Our Town.”) Then we’ll throw in a guy in a menial job who wants to be a songwriter. (The central story from “Once.”) Then, how about two somewhat naïve — but plucky — sisters who want to make it in the Big Apple? (“Wonderful Town,” anyone?) But let’s throw in some stuff about chance meetings and choices. (So fresh from “If/ Then,” this might be that show’s discarded material.) For romantic tension and because the girl wants more from her life than the songwriter seems to offer (“The Fantasticks,” check), we can add a tortured playwright who’s both romantic and trying to be experimental? (Good thing Chekhov is in the public domain.) You get the idea.
There are no credits for the book, music, or lyrics. Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick, and Kim Rosenstock take credit for the whole shebang — though Rosenstock claims sole credit for the concept — and perhaps that’s why the show feels like something done by committee. The score is musically immature, the kind of forgettable generic stuff packaged for children. And the characters are so undeveloped it’s impossible care for them. Ironically, the only character who seems real — the father of the would-be songwriter — is tangential to the proceedings.
The cast was better than the material. Patti Murin made the most of Daphne, the girl who falls for the would-be songwriter but discovers she wants more. Allison Case did her doe-eyed act from “Hands on a Hardbody” as Miriam the sister who works in a diner. Adam Chanler-Berat, as the songwriter Harold, was charming but largely reprised his performance from “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Peter Friedman as Harold’s father is always very good, but by the time of his second act song the show had spun out of control and its emotional impact was blunted.
Given these talented people, director Carolyn Cantor didn’t have to do much and it’s pretty obvious she didn’t. She just let them do their shtick, which is why “Fly By Night” was such an apt title. Though given the shameless lifting from others this show engaged in, it’s a surprise they didn’t call it “Much Ado About Nothing.”
HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME | Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th St. |Mon.-Tue., Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. | $59-$139 at ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929 | Two hrs., 25 min., with intermission