I’m not quite sure where to start with this show. I had no real expectations when I sat down in the theater. I am a theatre girl to the core, and a huge fan of musicals and the era of hip hop this particular musical is inspired by, so I was genuinely curious about the show. But somewhere between conception and stage, something seems to have gone south.
Here comes the pun; "Holler If You Hear Me" made me wanna holler, but not in a good way, unfortunately.
It's a show that I found half-baked, with problems that should've seemed so obvious to its creators, that I am baffled how they weren’t addressed during the lengthy workshop phase.
But I do understand that every piece of art has its audience, and, just maybe, I'm not a part of that audience.
In brief, "Holler" takes place in a nameless “Midwestern” urban metropolis. I will assume Chicago, because the brownstone set-up used for its set doesn’t really figure largely in most Midwestern cities. But honestly, this story could have taken place anywhere.
John, played by Saul Williams, descends upon us like Galinda in "Wicked," from his jail cell, to tell us about “My block.” The opening of the show was promising, but what followed can best be described by one of the songs: “Whatz Next?"
The show uses the music of arguably one of the best MC’s that ever graced a mic, and or a modern day in prophet Tupac Shakur. His lyrics play nicely on stage, especially when they are coming out of the mouth of Saul Williams, who gives a standout performance in his Broadway debut, as John, a street hustler freshly sprung from jail, determined to walk the straight and narrow. Rapping, at its essence, is storytelling, and, for the most part, the entire cast (mostly populated by Broadway veterans) handles the task of rapping admirably.
Christopher Jackson, a veteran of numerous Broadway musicals, but most memorably as Benny in "In the Heights," easily moves from smooth R&B vocals to rapping. Saycon Sengbloh best known for her role as Sandra in Broadway's "Fela," is doing what she does best as Corrine: singing her heart out. Tonya Pinkins isn’t given much to do, but she makes the most of every note and every line.
Where the show falters greatly is in Todd Kreidler's thin book. Kreidler gets zero points for originality, and even less for the heart needed to help the audience love and care about his characters; One of the characters, who is key to the story, dies before we really understand who he is, and what he is about, as the narrative meanders on without specificity, and feels more like an outline that was never fully filled in with necessary details.
Surely, "Holler If Ya Hear Me" isn’t the first musical with a weak book, but it is lacking in other areas.
Recent Tony Award winner Kenny Leon directs, but you get the feeling that he may have been spread a little thin, with his attention likely being paid more to the other running show he's also directing, "Raisin In the Sun," which won him the coveted Tony Award for directing a couple of weeks ago. "Holler If Ya Hear Me," a stated longtime passion project for Leon, strangely lacks real vision, and I wonder if it's because, in part, prior to "Holler," Leon directed 7 Broadway shows - all of them plays. The musical is an entirely different animal, with even more moving parts, so to speak. A director really has to have a handle on all the different aspects of production - especially those not found in straight plays - specifically music, dance, and book - to excel with a show like this one.
Also Wayne Cilento's choreography and staging is lacking, which there really is no excuse for, given that Cilento is a veteran, having had a long career on the so-called Great White Way, originally as a performer and eventually as a choreographer.
The cast often seems to be directing themselves, and so while individual performances might be good, there's a lack of cohesion via a firm directorial hand, holding it all together, as they sometimes seem to be meandering to lines, or gathering in stylized clumps. Smart staging and inspiring choreography could have gone a long way toward providing some much needed variety, in what often feels like dull repetition and monotony.
Watching this show was frustrating because I really felt like they were onto something. The simple but poignant "Thug Mansion" as performed by Griffy (Ben Thompson), Vertus (Christopher Jackson), and John (Saul Williams) really lands, and is a rare magical moment during the 2 1/2-hour running time (intermission included). And then there was the hot "Eleven o’clock" number that seemed entirely misplaced, and would've packed even more of a punch if it were better positioned within the narrative, in order to help establish the dreams of characters Benny and Griffy, in the beginning.
Ultimately, this is a talented ensemble cast, that, even through the clunky staging, unimaginative book, and seemingly vision-less direction, is apparent, and the show's saving grace, along with the spirit in which it was conceived and made.
However, as I noted at the beginning, sitting in the theater and hearing the audience cheers and recognition of Tupac tunes performed by the cast, I realized that, despite what I see as its faults, "Holler If Ya Hear Me," does have an audience, and it could just be that I'm not one of them.