Review: ‘The Boy Who Danced On Air’ Musical Remains Earthbound
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, June 8, 2017
Off-Broadway musicals this season have been tackling some seriously downbeat subject matter. Ride the Cyclone focused on a group of teenagers who die in a roller-coaster tragedy. Kid Victory centered around a young man who was kidnapped and kept for months as a sex slave. Then there were Hadestown and Joan of Arc: Into the Fire: a literal descent into Hell and a leading character literally burnt at the stake.
Of course, musicals can be about absolutely anything, but you have to have the chops to do your story justice, the right conditions, and a major dose of kismet. Otherwise your reach may exceed your grasp, as was true of pretty much every musical listed above, except for Hadestown, which was thrilling.
The new musical The Boy Who Danced on Air, presented through June 11th by the Abingdon Theatre Company at the June Havoc Theatre, mines similar narrative territory to Kid Victory, if only marginally more successfully.
The Boy Who Danced on Air centers around on bacha bazi, a traditional practice in Afghanistan wherein wealthy married men purchase young boys from poor families. The men train and keep the boys as dancers, entertaining the men and their male friends, but also use and trade the boys as sexual slaves. The supposed idea behind the practice is to allow the man to “satisfy his needs while remaining faithful to his wife,” according to one line from the show.
Composer Tim Rosser and librettist Charlie Sohne became intrigued with the subject after watching a Frontline documentary called “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.” It’s particularly fascinating to contemplate, and to attempt to reconcile, the harshly homophobic views that these men espouse, alongside the hypocritical practice of these men using boys for their sexual gratification.
Sadly, Rossner and Sohne leave that hypocrisy mostly unexplored. They’re far more interested in the love story between two of the dancing boys, which is fine. But the authors also, inexplicably, include a distracting subplot about American corruption involving a boondoggle power plant that the Americans have built but never intend to make operational in a bid to show the media that they are accomplishing something in rebuilding the country.
This narrative thread was clearly intended to add depth to the character of Jahandar, master of the central dancing boy in the story, Paiman. But all this accomplishes, at least as the show is currently written, is to make Jahandar a jarringly bifurcated character: harsh and dogmatic in his dealings with Paiman, but unconvincingly noble in his efforts to expose the Americans.
All of this might have worked had Sohne’s book had a little more poetry in it, a bit more subtlety. But the dialogue and the emotions therein feel as though rendered with a trowel versus a paint brush. Plus, there’s the portentous presence of an unnamed narrator whose identity is hiding in plain sight.
Sohne and Rossner’s songs have an authentic, idiomatic sound to them, and yet are rendered in a cozily familiar musical theater style. Rossner’s music has great melodic appeal, and Sohne’s lyrics show incipient craft. But for some reason, the pair don’t give Paiman much to sing in act one, which makes it harder to identify with his struggles with the dictates of his master.
For a show that uses dance as a metaphor for transcending one’s circumstances, there seems to be an insufficient amount of Nejla Yatkin’s choreography. That said, one major highlight of the show comes during the second act, when Troy Iwata as Paiman does a soul-stirring dance after being cruelly and intentionally hobbled by Jahandar.
Iwata, indeed, seems to be a young performer worth watching. He brings a wonderful believability and vulnerability to Paiman, and has an outstanding singing voice (even if it’s inflected with a bit too many pop mannerisms for my personal taste). The rest of the cast feels oddly stilted, particularly Nikhil Saboo, smug and artificial as Feda, another dancing boy, and Paiman’s love interest.
Still, there’s enough here to make me wish Sohne and Rossner could take another crack at the show, shed the corruption subplot, delve deeper into the central relationships, and find the tender and resonant show that’s at the core of their story.
The Boy Who Danced On Air at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex. Running time: two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Through June 11, 2017. Music by Tim Rosser; book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne. Directed by Tony Speciale; choreography by Nejla Yatkin; scenic design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader; costume design by Andrea Lauer; lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao; sound design by Justin Graziani. Cast: Osh Ghanimah, Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv and Nikhil Saboo.
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Cover: Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv, Nikhil Saboo and Osh Ghanimah in ‘The Boy Who Danced On Air;’ photo: Maria Baranova.