Saturday, March 04, 2006

Another Moment in a Long Tradition of Broadway Orientalism

Bombay Dreams. Orange County Performing Arts Center. Segerstrom Hall. Costa Mesa, CA. 2/23/06.

Bombay Dreams is a musical set in the Bollywood film industry and on the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai). It was a beautiful, lush production with a talented cast, but it was still profoundly problematic. Despite its attempts at authenticity, several moments certainly evoked the orientalist tradition of Broadway musicals.

The good news is that, unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein in The King and I or South Pacific, Bombay Dreams features several people from the culture it represents, both in its cast and among its creators. Composer A R Rahman is indeed a composer for Bollywood films and the romantic leads are played by actors of Indian descent.

In fact, I suspect that a little more familiarity with Bollywood film and Indian culture might actually have increased my appreciation of this musical; a large proportion of the audience was Indian and I would guess that Bombay Dreams has elements of both tribute to and satire of the Bollywood genre that a greater literacy might have given more meaning.

There were some extremely troubling moments, however. My biggest problem is with the role and the treatment of the character of Sweetie (played by (Aneesh Sheth), whose unrequited love for the leading man, Akaash (played by Sachin Bhatt), is unbearably painful. She's a hijra played by a man and fated to die tragically in the end in a rather unnecessary moment of queer containment.

My other concern is the fact that in this touring production, only about half of the performers were of Indian descent. Almost the entire cast was extremely light-skinned, with several people from across Asia playing Bombay natives. Several of the men were apparently African-American Just as the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story are generally played anyone with dark hair, including Natalie Wood, whose parents were Russian.

The strength of Bombay Dreams is its spectacle. The lush production numbers, full of bright colors and beautiful dancing, make this an entertaining show despite its flaws. The Bollywood setting, like the long Broadway tradition of backstage musicals, provide ample opportunities for singing and dancing and the cast does so quite well.