This theater publicity photo released [auth] by Seven17 Public Relations shows Nick Choksi and Lipica Shah in the new musical comedy, “Bunty Berman Presents…” currently performing off-Broadway at The New Group at Theatre Row in New York. (AP Photo/Seven17 Public Relations, Monique Carboni)
NEW YORK (AP) — Olivier Award-winning playwright Ayub Khan Din’s new sunny musical comedy “Bunty Berman Presents…” is a cheerfully irreverent tribute to what’s often called the golden age of Indian cinema. That era encompassed colorful, melodramatic Bollywood movies circa the 1950s-early 1960s.
The New Group’s world premiere of this buoyant musical, with book and lyrics by Din, and music by Din and Paul Bogaev, opened Thursday night. Din lyrically imagines a failing Bombay film production company in 1957, Bunty Berman Productions, which must stumble farcically through a number of obstacles in hopes of making a successful new comeback movie.
TNG’s founding artistic director Scott Elliott stages over-the-top action that segues seamlessly into sprightly, inventive dance sequences choreographed by Josh Prince, with a variety of diverse, clever songs moving the story along. From the exhilarating first number, “Bombay Opening,” to the final sparkling reprise of the irrepressible theme song, “Let’s Make a Movie,” the accomplished ensemble sings and dances up a veritable monsoon. Cross-dressing surprises and zany plot twists add to the fun.
Unexpectedly, Din (author of “East is East” and the 2008 Olivier-winning “Rafta Rafta,” both of which were also made into successful films) had to step into the title role of his new musical shortly after previews began, replacing actor Erick Avari after an injury.
Din’s singing is a bit rough at times, but it well-suits his impressive portrayal of a robust, confident film producer/director whose oblivion to petty details like dead bodies is an integral part of his charm.
Long heralded as the toast of Bombay, Bunty has recently become more like burnt toast. Although he made important contributions to Hindi films, such as insisting that “clinging wet saris were here to stay,” his recent movies have been described by the fickle critics as “stinkers” and he’s now broke, with no more friends at the bank.
Raj Dhawan, (a scene-stealingly hilarious turn by Sorab Wadia), Bunty’s old friend and now ungracefully aging studio star, has lost his box office appeal. Raj’s once-fabled “hero looks” — his soulful gazes into the eyes of his leading ladies — have lost their mojo too.
Bunty primarily blames his writer, Nizwar, (a plucky performance by Sevan Greene, displaying resilience despite a steady stream of writer-as-idiot jokes.)
Stock characters who are given fresh bloom by Din’s witty, affectionately mocking script include Dolly, Bunty’s overlooked but loving secretary of 20 years (Gayton Scott, initially a stork who turns into a swan.) Scott expressively sings of her yearning for Bunty in the lovely ballad, “Can You See Me?”
Bunty’s other supporters include a handsome but humble tea-boy (a boyishly appealing performance by Nick Choksi) who hopelessly loves beautiful, prima donna film star Shambervi (charmingly enacted by Lipica Shah). Shah exudes entitlement as Shambervi, giving a particularly strong rendition of “Shambervi’s Lament,” a bitter song about blind ambition and the price of fame.
Alok Tewari as feared gangster Shankar Dass leads a trio of unsavory, money-laundering and bumbling bad guys that the Marx brothers might have invented, including a petulantly menacing turn by Raja Burrows as his arrogant son.
Music director Boko Suzuki leads the small but mighty orchestra, and all the improbable events take place on a cleverly multi-level sound stage designed by Derek Lane, atmospherically lit by David Lander.
A rainbow array of saris, lavishly swirling dresses and embroidered coats, richly designed by William Ivey Long, enhance the air of Bollywood glitz. Silent black-and-white projections from old Hindi films reinforce how brilliantly Din’s fond parody respects and continues this Indian cinematic tradition while very effectively spoofing it.