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The Boy Who Danced on Air
... the tradition you’ve been given is proven, stable and beautiful. Stand on its foundation, its solid ground. If you don’t: if you decide that those traditions are untenable, if you decide that grounding is based in nothing - then you have nothing. You are simply dancing on air. — Jahandar
danced on air
Jonathan Raviv and Troy Iwata (Photo by Maria Baranova)

Inspired by a tradition in Afghanistan, a country we know largely through war, the June Havoc Theater presents a musical tale of local culture and universal emotion. The Boy Who Danced on Air is a love story evolving from the ancient and brutal Afghan tradition of Bacha Bazi and its fierce outcome. An exotic score by composer Tim Roser and book writer/lyricist Charlie Sohne highlights the controversy around the tradition as well as the yearning and the emotional conflicts of the boys and men involved.

The Kite Runner, the 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, and the film that followed, exposed the ancient practice of Bacha Bazi ("playing with boys") where wealthy men buy prepubescent boys from poor families to dance for them and often provide sex. Since women are not allowed to dance in pubic, the boys are dressed in female clothes, with ribbons and bells tied on their feet and a scarf around their faces.

In 2010 a PBS documentary produced by journalist Najibullah Quraishi, explored the tradition's recent revival. Although Bacha Bazi is banned by the Taliban, the revival continues today.

While the ugly practice of Bacha Bazi seems like a disturbing conceit for a musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air, director Tony Speciale blends the offensiveness with inspiration and theatricality and the cast sings with compelling power.

Each act begins with an Unknown Man (Deven Kolluri), who observes and comments on what is going on. At the top of the play, he watches Jahandar, in silhouette, played by The Band's Visit's Jonathan Raviv, greeting a young boy, Paiman (Troy Iwata), whom he just purchased from the boy's father. He instructs Paiman to follow the tradition of obedience, learning to dance, entertaining Jahandar's friends and perhaps performing other favors. If he seems brutal with the boy, the master explains, it is because he is protecting the morality of tradition. Raviv and Iwata originated the roles in the premiere of The Boy Who Danced on Air in San Diego.

Paiman develops into a beautiful dancer and after the curtain parts, we see him as a handsome 16-year-old— leaping, twirling and limber in colorful tunics, scarves and pants designed by Shirley Pierson. Iwata's singing is strong and clear but his face reflects Paiman's yearning and confusion. This becomes more evident when he meets Feda (Nikhil Saboo), another dancer and singer. Feda, one year older and more brash, is owned by Jahandar's wise-cracking, card-playing friend, Zemar, played by Osh Ghanimah. Feda and Paimar fall in love and plan to run away to the city.

The book slows down when Jahandar reveals his plan to blow up a local United States built power plant. This subplot breaks up the play's flow and the boys' relationship. On the other hand, it unveils layers of Jahandar's character, showing his fierce nationalism and cruelty contrasting with his consideration for Paiman's well-being and future.

Winners of 2015 Jonathan Larson and Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Awards, Tim Roser's music with lyrics by Charlie Sohne, present the rhythms of Afghani instrumental exposition while adding lyrics to define the characters with nuance and understanding.

Kolluri as the Unknown Man has a compelling voice with which delivers a narration that subtly drives the plot. Raviv's Jahandar is magnetic, both vocally and dramatically, notably in his bitter delivery of "Kabul." Iwata interprets Paiman's inherent sensitivity as a young man aching to find independence and Saboo's Feda is harder, the result of mistreatment by his master. His duet with Iwata, "A Boy of My Own," illustrates the conflicting ways they see their future. Osh Ghanimah is capable in his limited role as Zemar.

With David Gardos directing the music, Nejla Yatkin's choreography is astounding and graceful in the flowing airy costumes by Andrea Lauer and fight direction by Dan Renkin. The action moves on a war-torn set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader with stark staging, Wen-Ling Liao's dramatic lighting effects and Justin Graziani's sudden bursts of sound.

The Boy Who Danced on Air was presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theater's Festival of New Musicals in 2013. Now off-Broadway, the well-crafted production and gifted performers bring an intriguing, though certainly unsettling tradition to the stage with the actors' layered sensitivity and the human strength of love and spirit. With some editing, this innovative musical has staying power.

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • A Song He Never Chose / Unknown Man and Company
  • Little Dance / Paiman
  • For a Night / Feda
  • Kabul - Jahandar
  • With Him Around Me / Feda and Paiman
  • All That I've Known / Paiman
  • Play Your Part / Jahandar
  • A Song He Never Chose (Reprise) / Unknown Man
  • With Him Around Me (Reprise) / Feda
  • Into Your Hands / Feda
  • The Trink/ A Song He Never Chose / Unknown Man When I Have a Boy of My Own / Feda and Paiman
Act Two
  • Denying the Sun / Unknown Man and Feda
  • What You Did to Me / Feda and Paiman
  • In the City / Paiman
  • I Can See It / Jahandar
  • Paiman's Dance - Unknown Man, Feda and Paiman
  • I Know How You Feel / Jahandar
  • A Song He Never Chose (Finale)/ Unknown Man and Feda
  • Feda's Song / Company

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The Boy Who Danced on Air Book, Music and Lyrics: Tim Rosser (music) and Charlie Sohne (lyrics)
Director: Tony Speciale
Musical Direction: David Gardos
Choreography: J Nejla Yatkin
Cast: Troy Iwata, Jonathan Raviv, Osh Ghanimah, Deven Kolluri, and Nikhil Saboo.
Set Design: Christopher Swader and Justin Swader
Costume Design: Andrea Lauer
Lighting Design: Wen-Ling Liao
Sound Design: Justin Graziani
Props: Jerry Marsini
Running Time: 2 hours. 20 minutes. One intermission
Theatre: June Havoc Theatre, Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 W. 36th Street, New York, NY
Tickets: Start at $35. CityTix 212-581-1212
Performances: Wed.,Thurs. at. 7:30pm. Fri., Sat. at 8pm. Sun. at 7pm. Sat., Sun. matinees at 2pm.
Previews: 05/15/17. Opens: 05/25/17. Closes: 06/11/17
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 05/21/17

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