Eighteen years after his murder at the age of 25, Tupac Shakur has made it to Broadway, in a show that has taken on the awesome challenge of weaving 21 songs and poems by the charismatic rapper and actor into a newly created story about the struggling community on a block in a Midwestern industrial city.
If “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is not your standard jukebox musical, this is because Shakur’s musical idiom was gangster rap, and the new book for the musical by Todd Kreidler tries to construct a narrative that does justice to Shakur’s themes and perspectives, presenting decent people under indecent pressures.
Despite a conscientious effort, the story is what is most disappointing about “Holler.” Some will be unhappy that it is not about Tupac Shakur. (Reportedly, the production could not get hold of the rights to his life story, even though Shakur’s mother is one of the producers.) The multi-character plot that replaces the expected bio-drama is at times muddled or poorly paced, and feels no fresher and less moving than a one-sided “West Side Story.”
Yet, there are enough arresting moments, the music is often exciting enough, and the large cast is talented enough, to have made me wonder while I was watching the show, whether it would have worked better without a plot – like the “choreopoems” of Ntozake Shange’s “For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf “
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John Caviness (Saul Williams) is a self-taught cartoonist who we first see suspended in mid-air in a jail cell, wearing the familiar orange prison jumpsuit. (It’s one of the few scenic design flourishes in a deliberately drab and empty industrial set.) Once released from jail, he goes back to the old neighborhood, determined to keep to himself and stay out of trouble. He gets a job at a local garage and towing service, which is run by Griffy (Ben Thompson.) John stays away from his childhood friend Vertus (Christopher Jackson), the local drug dealer – and even from Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), who was John’s girlfriend, and is now Vertus’s.
But then Benny gets killed. Benny was Griffy’s partner – both dreamed of escaping to California – and Vertus’ younger brother.
John wants no part of the revenge that the others are planning – until suddenly he does. Is it because his first paycheck from Griffy’s garage was too low? That’s what it seems to be. In any case, his change of mind leads to the title song, performed right before the intermission — thrilling in its beat and in the dancing that accompanies it. (Although the choreographer is Wayne Cilento – Wicked, How To Succeed, etc. etc. — there is, oddly, relatively little dancing in the show – and only a brief interval of breakdancing.)
Eventually, John changes his mind again – and Vertus changes his mind as well, both deciding that revenge will get them nowhere.
In the meantime, John and Corinne appear to have a rapprochement, at least long enough to have a lovely duet, Unconditional Love.
California Love is performed by the ensemble around a purple Cadillac (with just a suggestion of a number out of “Hands on a Hardbody“)
2Pac purists might be disappointed (if not outraged) by the new arrangements and repurposing of some of his songs, but most theatergoers will find this clever reworking to be among the highlights of the musical. For example, “I Get Around,” a testosterone-fueled boasting rap is paired with “Keep Ya Head Up” delivered by Sengbloh and the other women, which includes the lyrics:
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
These lyrics makes less sense being sung by a woman than by a man, but it works in the context of the staging.
Williams, a well-known slam poet, singer and writer making his Broadway debut, is an inspired choice for a leading man; he comes off as authentically fierce and philosophical (even when his character’s behavior is incoherent.) The fabulous Tonya Pinkins as Vertus’ mother is criminally underused, but almost makes the entire show worthwhile with her duet with Jackson as her son, Resist The Temptation/Dear Mama. This is Christopher Jackson’s sixth show on Broadway. He’s a true pro, and gives a fine performance in “Holler If Ya Hear Me.” It’s not his fault that I kept thinking of his performance as Benny in “In The Heights,” a show that put rap on Broadway far more effectively.
Holler if Ya Hear Me
At The Palace Theater
Book by Todd Kreidler; lyrics by Tupac Shakur; directed by Kenny Leon; musical staging and choreography by Wayne Cilento; music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters; sets by Edward Pierce; projections by Zachary Borovay; costumes by Reggie Ray; lighting by Mike Baldassari; sound by John Shivers and David Patridge; music coordinator, John Monaco; music director, Zane Mark; associate choreographer, Jared Grimes; scenic designs based on original concepts by David Gallo; hair and wig design by Greg Bazemore; production manager, Theatersmith Associates; fight director, Rick Sordelet;
Cast: Saul Williams (John), Christopher Jackson (Vertus), Saycon Sengbloh (Corinne), Ben Thompson (Griffy),John Earl Jelks (Street Preacher), Joshua Boone (Darius), Dyllon Burnside (Anthony) and Tonya Pinkins (Mrs. Weston).
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.