Friday, December 14, 2007

Queens Boulevard (The SOB Review)

Queens Boulevard (The SOB Review) - Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space

**1/2 (out of ****)

In the Signature Theater Company bio for Charles Mee, the revered playwright is quoted as saying:

I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.

If you're looking for Mee's trademark "broken, jagged and filled with sharp edges," look no further that this mystical and surreal new musical Queens Boulevard. In it, that world collides together in that microcosmic melting pot known as Queens, New York, where nearly half of the borough's 2.25 million inhabitants were born outside the United States.

Before the show even begins, the audience enters on a spirited, spiritual wedding reception already in progress. Director Davis McCallum succeeds in making you feel as though you're part of this celebration. It's a varitable feast for the senses -- including tastebuds, if you're among the fortunate audience members to receive a pre-performance jello shooter -- making the first twenty minutes alone so beguiling that it's more than worth the $20 ticket price.

The bride Shizuko (Michi Barall) and groom Vijay (Amir Arison) are first generation Americans of Japanese and Indian descent, respectively. With a nod to each of their cultures, their banquet is visually and rhythmically steeped in rich colors and pulsating beats. Thanks in part to Christal Weatherly's exquisite costume design and Peter Pucci's stunning choreography, it's like taking in a Bollywood film with a Japanese accent.

Presiding over the proceedings -- with the emphasis on "over" -- is the requisite DJ (Satya Bhabha). After spinning together a rich amalgam of world tunes from his lonely perch high above the wedding dance floor, the DJ metaphorically spins around the story of Shizuko and Vijay's first evening as a married couple.

While he rarely speaks, his presence looms large in practically every scene. He's always there -- not unlike the way in which Kimberly Guerrero's Johnna quietly hovers over the chaos in August: Osage County -- as if he's offering some centrifugal force to ensure these two lovers never spin completely out of orbit from one another.

But they come very close.

In the aftermath of the reception when Shizuko and Vijay share their first real quiet moment together alone (save the fluttering DJ), she divulges to her husband that a mysterious stranger had earlier presented a beautiful, mythical Flower of Heaven to her. After sharing her story, she excuses herself to briefly prepare for her wedding night. Vijay inexplicably becomes obsessed with finding her a matching flower and heads out into the bustling streets of Queen in his quest.

Along the way, he crosses paths with his friend Abdi (Arian Moayed), a Muslim who has just lost his mother and is carrying her wooden casket en route to her burial. He implores Vijay to be a good comrade and provide comfort by staying through the interment. In turn, Abdi promises to help find the elusive flower.

True to Mee's use of "sudden turns" that "careen into each other," Vijay and Abdi's focus -- and that of Mee, too -- becomes lost when one distraction (such as a chance bar room meeting with one of Vijay's former loves) after another (like their eleventh hour decision to see another acquaintance before she gives birth) after another borders on the ridiculously monotonous.

If that weren't tedious enough, each friend and acquaintance they meet along the way feels the need to pontificate, resulting in the story losing its way every bit as much as Vijay has. Each usurps the groom's time away from his bride to the point where you just want to stand up and say, "go home already." Even poor Shizuko soon finds herself out with her friends vainly in search of Vijay, although the two narrowly miss each other in a dance club.

Queens Boulevard isn't so much east meets west as much as where high-minded meets heavy-handed. As a musical, Queens Boulevard operates more like a quirkier New Age "Moulin Rouge" than a show with an original score. What you get is an eclectic fusion of tunes spanning the globe, ranging from the identifiable ABBA tune ("Dancing Queen") to the more obscure, including "traditional Okinawan, Iranian and Irish folks songs" outlined in the program notes. But the result is far from cohesive.

The roundly talented cast delivers as many as four different personnas each, evoking the myriad ethnicities that abound in Queens. Most effective is Bhabha, who as the DJ ultimately reels Vijay -- as well as the slightly off-kilter production -- back to some semblence of reality with fresh flower in hand as he's finally reunited with Shizuko.

Mee certainly ties up the loose ends in his (ironically enough) distinctly American fairy tale -- with the multitude of characters he's stuffed into his work, it really couldn't happen anywhere else -- but true to his intent, it's far from being too neat or too presentable.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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