Regional Reviews: San Diego
Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical
The plot is a campus procedural: East Lansing University (was there ever a worse name for a barely disguised Michigan State?) has a team of bhangra dancers called the Tigres. Bhangra is a form of dance from the Punjab region of India, and it is one of many forms of Indian dance. The team is competing in the state championship to represent Michigan at nationals.
A rivalry begins when Preeti (Vinithra Raj), one of the Tigres, calls out Mary (Ari Afsar) for wanting to dance a solo with the team in a different style than what Preeti considers to be "pure" bhangra. A conflict develops over what is "pure," and Mary accuses Preeti, probably correctly, of calling her out because she doesn't look Indian enough (Mary's mother was Indian, her father was not). Impetuously, Mary resigns from the team, essentially leaving Preeti in charge. Mary goes off to start her own team, named the Wood Ducks. It's a ragtag bunch, and they're at a disadvantage on campus because they can only organize as a cultural club and not as a competition team. They even end up with a professor (Jason Heil) who, it turns out, is about as lonely as many of Mary's volunteers.
Of course, there has to be a fairy godmother in this sort-of Cinderella story, and it turns out to be Rekha (Alka Nayyar), the owner of the local Indian restaurant. Rekha becomes interested in the Wood Ducks and ends up coaching them. However, her idea of coaching turns out to involve team-building exercises like washing dishes at her restaurant. Eventually, Mary has a love interest, Billy (Brandon Contreras), the team pulls a fast one to get to nationals, and they fiddle with making their bhangra more hybrid, contrasting it to hip-hop and even Bollywood-style dancing.
The book by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza impresses as more than a little derivative but improves as the show progresses. Sam Willmott's music and lyrics, with additional music by Deep Singh, may be far more Broadway than Bollywood, but collectively the songs have a beat and you can dance to them.
Director Stafford Arima can take credit for a lot of what's right with the show, along with his production team: scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, projection designer David Bengali, costume designer Linda Cho, and sound designer Jonathan Deans. There's also a trio of creatives whose official assignments overlap in my mind: Rujuta Vaidya, choreography; Lisa Shriver, musical staging; and Anushka Pushpala, bhangra specialist.
In the end, though, it's a world premiere and it needs more work, perhaps a lot more work. I hope the creative team does that work and Bhangin' It doesn't end with this production.
Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical runs through April 17, 2022, at La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performance times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, please call 858-550-1010 or visit LaJollaPlayhouse.org.
The cast also includes Bilaal Avaz, Jesse Bhamrah, Laura Dadap, Henry Walter Greenberg, Terrance Johnson, Jaya Joshi, Madison McBride, Anu Mysore, Amey Natu, Zain Patel, Devi Peot, and Ramita Ravi. Swings are Nikki Mirza, Gerry Tonella, and Levin Valayil.