Sunday, July 6, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: Holler If Ya Hear Me

The Boom Box: Rappers Words, Music Lend Themselves to a New Version of Juke Box Musical
By Lauren Yarger
Instead of songs of Abba, Jersey Boys, Carole King or other composers from the Juke Box era forming the foundation for a plot to bring them together (and some do it better than others), Todd Kriedler uses the words and music of a more recent chart topper, the late hiphop/rap star Tupac Shakur, to tell a story of inner-city life in Holler If Ya Hear Me.

He and Director Kenny Leon (who won the Tony for his work on last season’s revival of Raisin in the Sun) bring the Juke Box Musical into a new time zone and create the “Boom Box Musical,” if you will, with tunes more modern than Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys or Carole King. While the two former musicals succeed because of the strength of their books, most in the genre don’t satisfy because the stories so obviously are just a means to presenting 20 to 30 popular tunes.

Holler If You Hear Me lands somewhere in the middle. This music is hardly the sing-along variety. Shakur’s lyrics express real, sometimes harsh emotions. The music is driving, with a loud beat befitting the tough streets of the Midwestern industrial city where the action (and choreography by Wayne Cilento) takes place. Shakur himself was a victim on the violence depicted (he was killed in a drive-by shooting 1996, though this story is not biographical). The plot is fairly predictable here, however, and characters fit neatly into stereotypes so that the action can move quickly from song to song.

A quick synopsis -- much like the plot:
John (Saul Williams, Slam) returns from a stint in prison to find that his girl, Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) is now with his best friend, Vertus (Christopher Jackson). He tries to start over with a job at the Griffin, the local auto body shop owned by a father and his son, Griffy (Ben Thompson), who hopes one day everyone will be able to get along. There’s a gang taking over, however, and they kill Vertus’ younger brother, Benny (Donald Webber, Jr.) and threaten his mother, Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins, who shines), if he doesn’t meet their demands.

All of the folks in the hood seem unable to resist becoming involved in the violence. Mrs. Weston begs her son to change his life so she can avoid having to bury another son. Also reminding the neighbors about the Good News is a Street Preacher (John Earl Jelks). The neighborhood folks all care for him in his homeless state and their care for him demonstrates what might be possible on the block if everyone can band together and resist the temptation to seek vengeance.

A large ensemble completes the cast which performs 21 musical numbers including “My Block,” “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “If I Die 2Nite,” “Thugz Mansion,” “Ghetto Gospel,” “Dear Mama” and the title song. The stage (designed by Edward Pierce based on original concepts by David Gallo) is stark, with minimal props. Projections (by Zachary G. Borovay) help set locations, but most impressive is the lighting designed by Mike Baldassari who expertly creates mood. When characters are down, it’s darker. When they are angry, lights become brash and move with the pounding beat of the music (which puts some of Shukar’s poems to notes and is supervised here by Daryl Waters).

Stadium seating is used to eliminate more than 500 seats on the orchestra level of the gigantic Palace Theatre to move the audience closer to the stage and to create a more intimate atmosphere. The typical Broadway crowd hasn’t yet embraced the hiphop/rap mix, however, so even with fewer seats, tickets aren’t flying out the box office and there were plenty available on all levels the evening I attended.

It’s worth the trip, though, especially if you are fan of the music – the audience members who were in seats were bopping along with the beat. All of them – young, old, black, brown, white, male, female – so  2Pac’s music still has appeal. And a couple of the tunes sound like actual Broadway-type ballads rather than what you might expect to come out of a boom box.


Holler If Ya Hear Me runs at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th St., NYC. http://hollerifyahearme.com/. CLOSING ANNOUNCED FOR JULY 20.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

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All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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