NEW YORK (AP) — Broadway has had a punk jukebox musical with Green Day songs and one featuring harmonies by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. There's a jukebox show with Abba songs and a new Carole King one. Now it's time for rap.
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is the intriguing musical inspired by songs by Tupac Shakur, one of hip-hop's greatest artists who wrote about the ugly life in the drug-fueled mean streets before dying of gunshot wounds in 1996.
The high-energy, deeply felt but ultimately overwrought production opened Thursday in a blaze of N-words at the Palace Theatre, proving both that rap deserves its moment to shine on a Broadway stage and that some 20 Shakur songs can somehow survive the transformation — barely.
Writer Todd Kreidler and director Kenny Leon wisely avoided writing a Shakur biography and instead have fashioned a fictional story in a traditional two-act format, compete with reprises. It's a tragedy, with more than a whiff of Shakespearian doom and bluster.
But the creators apparently haven't trusted it to appear in a traditional Broadway theater. Stadium-style seating built in the Palace's orchestra section has displaced 600 seats and created intimacy, but one wonders why one of Broadway's biggest theaters was even picked in the first place.
It stars slam poet and singer Saul Williams as John, a recently sprung inmate hoping to stay out of trouble, and Christopher Jackson as his buddy Vertus, whose need for familial revenge threatens more violence in their unnamed Midwestern city. It's set in the present and the story makes references to iPods and Sudoku, though the lyrics — slightly altered to allow for gender differences — remain firmly in the mid-1990s.
Unlike other jukebox musicals, the songs in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are rarely ever delivered in the style of the original artist. Instead, the show's creators test their elasticity by turning them into duets or group songs — and one even gets a folky acoustic guitar treatment. The danger is that the urgent, free verse style of Shakur's very personal songs gets diffused, lightened and flattened.
There are some inspired moments, like when the misogynist "I Get Around," with eight men boasting about their prowess, gets matched with "Keep Ya Head Up," a song about female empowerment performed by eight women. "Dear Mama" fits perfectly as a song Vertus sings to his mother, played by the always-fabulous Tonya Pinkins. "If I Die 2Nite" is nicely done, with Wayne Cilento's staging and choreography smartly distributing verses to a group of street soldiers, each in their own spotlight.
The party jam "California Love" getting the full Broadway treatment — complete with a Cadillac onstage — and the Act One closing number of the title track is led by Williams in full propulsive anger, as close to hearing the shaking fury of Shakur himself.
But that full-throttle energy can't sustain itself through the 2 1/2-hour show. "Me Against the World" becomes a bland duet between the two heroes, and "Unconditional Love" is repurposed as a love song between John and his estranged girlfriend, played by Saycon Sengbloh, whose sensational voice reveals the limitations of Williams' range.
"I Ain't Mad at Cha" is used as a duet between Vertus and John and later recycled for John and his father, a street preacher with a bullhorn who seems lifted from a Spike Lee movie. "Only God Can Judge Me" is handed to a secondary, hothead character. The dancing is minimal throughout, leaning on crumping and hip-hop steps without choking the piece in big dance breaks.
It all slowly builds to a night where everything comes to a head and exposes some flab — "Dopefiend's Diner," for example, could have been cut and there are too many scenes in a junkyard. More troubling, the repetition of the me-against-the-world point of view in Shakur's songs doesn't always help move the story forward onstage.
Credit Afeni Shakur, a producer of the show, for allowing her son's music to sound differently. Or, if you're completely cynical, credit her with finding a new revenue stream for his catalogue. Either way, rap is firmly on Broadway, and that's something to celebrate.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits