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Holler If Ya Hear Me
Living life is but a dream
Hard times is all we see
Every block is kinda mean
— from "My Block" which opens both the first and second act.
Are Broadway audiences ready to embrace a musical inspired and driven by the songs of a hard-core hip-hop rapper? The fiercely committed cast and director Kenny Leon and his creative team have gone all out to make not only Tupac Shakur acolytes but hip-hop virgins unaccustomed to the quick staccato pace and often raw language of rap holler "Yes, I want a ticket."
Saul Williams and cast(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tupac Shakur, born Lesane Parish Crooks and also known as 2Pac, Pac and Makaveli, would be 43 years old if he hadn't been killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996. Though long gone he's become a legend as attested to by his album sales (77 millions at most recent count) and numerous published biographies. Now that legend is revitalized with a musical bolstered by an eight million dollar investment at the Palace Theatre, a Broadway house that's also legendary.
But don't count on seeing a character called Tupac in Holler If Ya Hear Me. Though fans will recognize plenty of Shakur's classic hits from his albums. Anyone familiar with Shakur's story and lyrics will see that John (Saul Williams), the main character of Kreidler's book is a much altered stand-in. He's a self-taught cartoonist not a musician and his story follows his return to the neighborhood tenement in an unnamed industrial city after six years in jail.
The lyrics sung by Williams and the other performers playing the "hood" characters reflect the racial and social injustices that Shakur rapped about. However, the decision to avoid a more biographical approach as that super successful jukebox musical Jersey Boys did, makes for a rather bland and familiar story.
Williams brings an impressive resume to his Broadway debut (performer, published poet, university lecturer about the connection between hip-hop and classical poetry). He plays John, a young man whose emotions went into deep freeze in prison and still haven't thawed out, with a Tupac-like intensity. He sings as well as he acts, especially in the rousing Act One finale of the show's title number from the rapper's second solo album. But in aiming for a story that a broad-based audience could identify with, book writer Todd Kreider has given him a character who's more true to the everyman name of John than that of the more unique Tupac Shakur.
Though set in a present day and in the Midwest, the story line does have parallels to the East Coast-West Coast feuds involving competing rap groups and their members and producers. Traditional theater goers may find themselves remembering the gang confrontations of West Side Story. Actually, Holler. . . bears a closer kinship to August Wilson with whom Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler have strong connections. Kreidler was dramaturg on a number of Wilson plays helmed by Leon so it's not surprising that they've populated Holler. . . with some very Wilsonesque characters — notably Mrs. Weston, the story's protective mama played by the powerhouse actress and singer Tonya Pinkins and a wandering preacher played by John Earl Jenks, a frequent Wilson interpreter.
font size="1">Tonya Pinkus (Mrs. Weston) and Christopher Jackson (Vertus)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The creative team includes Tupac's mother Afeni, who previously produced a Shakur film documentary and is also one of the show's producers. Together they've managed to integrate the words from Tupac's songs as well as one of his published books of poetry, The Rose that Grew From Concrete, and rearrange them into musical theater style arias, duets, trios and ensemble numbers.
The story's inevitably operatic twist is well supported by the heart-tugging "Ghetto Gospel" with its plea of "there's no need for you to fear me/if you take your time to hear me, maybe you can learn to cheer me/
it ain't about black or white, cause we're human."
Clearly there's no need to brush up on your Tupac Shakur history and music to be able to follow and respond to the plot or the music.
The twenty-one songs which include favorites like "Life Goes On", "Me Against the World" and the touching "Dear Mama" that's here an ode by a guilty son to his mother. All are melodic if not instantly memorable. All are rendered with enough emotional potency to make it easy to understand what's being said — even when though words are less than crystal clear despite the excellent small orchestra and Daryl Waters' easy on the ears orchestrations.
Saul Williams (John), Dyllon Burnside (Anthony), Joshua Boone (Darius)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Like Williams, the entire cast acts and sings with fierce commitment. Topping the list of standouts are the indomitable Sonya Pinkins as John's mother and John Earl Jelks as the preacher; also quite good are Christopher Jackson as Vertus the troubled King of The Block . . Saycon Sengblogh, his girl friend (and formerly John's) . . . . .
Dyllon Burnside as the eager to avenge his fallen friend Anthony
.. .and Ben Thompson as the guitar playing white mechanic.
Wayne Cliento has created plenty of high energy though somewhat repetitive choreography that's expertly executed by the main players and the large My Block Chorus. The production values overall are spectacular. The stage has been extended and features a turntable to create a sense of an entire city block swirling with activity. The rising and descending rooms of Edward Pierce's scenic design include the cage-like prison cell in which we first see John. The wrecking shop owned and run by a white man and his son where John is hired boasts a shiny purple Cadillac convertible signalling dreams of heading to California. The other work by the other designers is also first-rate.
Besides having the stage reach into the orchestra the producers reconfigured the theater for 100% stadium seating. Consequently just about every seat in this huge old theater has perfect sight lines, but at the cost of some 600 seats. That may be more an advantage than a problem, since it's an open question whether this attempt to marry hard core hip-hop with a more traditional audience friendly story will succeed. Tupac's fans may find the book too hokey and not dangerously edgy enough. The story may not be original enough for traditionalists to get out their wallets for this much rapping.
An interesting bit of trivia: At age thirteen, while still living in New York Tupav appeared as the young son in a production of A Raisin in the Sun at an Apollo Theatre benefit for Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign — the Lorraine Hansberry play, successfully revived on Broadway this season and also directed by Kenny Leon.
Holler When Ya Hear Me|
Book by Todd Kreidler
Lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur
Directed by Kenny Leon
Music orchestrated and arranged by Daryl Waters
Musical Director: Zane Mark
Cast (Order of Appearance: Saul Williams(John), Christopher Jackson (Vertus), Joshua Boone (Darius), Jaime Lincoln Smith (Reggie), Jared Joseph (Lemar),Jahi A. Kearse (Nunn), Tonya Pinkinds(Mrs. Weston),Saycon Sengbloh (Corinne), John Earl Jelks(Street Preacher),Donald Webber, Jr.(Benny), Dyllon Burnside (Anthony), Ben Thompson (Griffy), Joaquina Kalukango (Kamilah)
My Block Chorus: Tracee Beazer, Afi Bijou, Mel Charlot,Carrie Compere,Otis Cotton, Brandon Gill, Ari Groover, Jared Joseph, Joaquina Kalukango, Jahi Kearse Muata Langley,Valentine Norton, Christina Sajous, Charlene "Chi-Chi"Smith, Jaime Lincoln Smith,Donald Webber, Jr.
Musical Staging and Choreography by Wayne Cilento
Scenic Design by Edward Pierce
Scenic Designs Based on Original Concepts by David Gallo
Costume Design by Reggie Ray
Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari
Sound Design by John Shivers and David Patridge
Hair and Wig Design by Gregory Bazemore
Projection Design by Zachary Borovay
Stage Manager: Beverly Jenkins
Musical Supervisor: Daryl Waters
Orchestra: Conductor & keyboards: Zane Mark; Associate Conductor: Paul Masse; Drums: Damon DueWhite; Percussion: Dan Weiner; Trumpet 1/Flugelhorn: Barry Danielian; Trumpet 2/Flugelhorn: Scott Wendholt; Saxophone/Flute: Scott Kreitzer; Trombone: Charles Gordon
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including 1 intermission
Palace Theater 1564 Seventh Avenue
From 6/02/14; opening 6/19/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 16th press preview
(music by Osten S. Harvey, Jr., Ernest Isley, Marvin Isley, O'Kelly Isley, Jr., Ronald Isley, Rudolph Bernard Isley, Chris Jasper and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John and Company
- Dopefiend's Diner
(music by Deon Evans, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Suzanne Vega; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus and My Block Chorus
- Life Goes On
(music by Johnny Lee Jackson, Joseph B. Jefferson, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Charles B. Simmons; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Anthony, Darius, Nunn, Lemar, Reggie and My Block Chorus
I Get Around
(music by Tupac Amaru Shakur, Gregory Jacobs, Larry Troutman, Shirley Murdock and Ron Brooks; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Darius, Reggie, Lemar, Corinne, Kamilah and My Block Chorus
Keep Ya Head Up
(music by Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Darius, Reggie, Lemar, Corinne, Kamilah and My Block Chorus
I Ain't Mad at Cha
(music by Delmar Drew Arnaud, Etterlene Jordan, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Danny Boy Steward; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus, John and My Block Women
Please Wake Me When I'm Free
(music by Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Corinne and Kamilah
The Rose That Grew From Concrete
(music by Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Corinne and Kamilah
Me Against the World
(music by Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Yafeu Fula, Malcolm Greenidge, Kenneth Karlin, Minnie Riperton, Richard Rudolph, Carsten Shack, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Leon Ware; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John and Corinne
(music by Tyruss Gerald Himes, Johnny Lee Jackson, Johnny McKinzie, Maurice Shelton-Harding Shakur, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Salih Williams; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus, Darius, Anthony, Corinne and My Block Chorus
(music by Bruce Andrew Hawes, Joseph B. Jefferson, Tony Pizarro, Joe Sample, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Charles B. Simmons; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus and My Block Chorus
Holler If Ya Hear Me
(music by Kevin Rhames, Tupac Amaru Shakur, Barrett Strong, Christopher Walker, Randy Walker and Norman Jesse Whitfield; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur)
My Block (Reprise)
(music by Osten S. Harvey, Jr., Ernest Isley, Marvin Isley, O'Kelly Isley, Jr., Ronald Isley, Rudolph Bernard Isley, Chris Jasper and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Anthony and Darius
(music by Deon Evans, Bruce R. Hornsby and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John, Griffy, Vertus, Anthony and My Block Chorus
- Resist the Temptation
(music by Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus and Mrs. Weston
Dear Mama (Reprise)
(music by Bruce Andrew Hawes, Joseph B. Jefferson, Tony Pizarro, Joe Sample, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Charles B. Simmons; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Vertus and Mrs. Weston
(music by Rufus Lee Cooper, Katari T. Cox, Yafeu Fula, Joseph Paquette, Tupac Amaru Shakur, Bruce Washington and Tyrone J. Wrice; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John, Darius, Anthony and Young Souljas
(music by Johnny Lee Jackson and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John and Corinne
I Ain't Mad at Cha (Reprise)
(music by Delmar Drew Arnaud, Etterlene Jordan, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Danny Boy Steward; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John and Street Preacher
- If I Die 2Nite
(music by Willie James Clarke, Norman Anthony Durham, Osten S. Harvey, Jr., Tupac Amaru Shakur and Betty Wright; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Anthony, Darius, Reggie, Lemar and Young Souljas
Only God Can Judge Me
(music by Anthony Forte, Harold A. Fretty, Douglas B. Rasheed and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Anthony
(music by Seven Marcus Aurelius, Anthony Hamilton, Johnny Lee Jackson and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) John, Vertus and Griffy
(music by Mutah W. Beale, Rufus Lee Cooper, Malcolm Greenidge, Tyruss Gerald Himes, Johnny Lee Jackson and Tupac Amaru Shakur; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Reggie, Lemar, Young Souljas and My Block Women
(music by Deon Evans, Elton John, Marshall B. Mathers III, Luis Edgardo Resto, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Bernie Taupin; lyrics by Tupac Amaru Shakur) Company
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