It’s a safe bet that a swath of theatergoers has steered clear of hip-hop—at least, the kind not scripted by “In the Heights” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda—because it’s gritty, racy and has a perception problem in some quarters.
If that’s you, then “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the Broadway musical “inspired by” the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, is a chance to correct a grave omission. If, however, you’ve been on the Tupac train all along, then “Holler,” which has just opened at The Palace Theatre, is a banner opportunity to stand in awe of a rich canon that, it’s difficult to grasp, originated with a man who died at only 25.
But the two-dozen songs lushly presented in the $8 million production directed by Kenny Leon (who just nabbed a Tony for “A Raisin in the Sun”) are threaded together by a fictional story so tired, and so often told, that you can’t help but walk away feeling that an opportunity has been missed.
Todd Kreidler, a one-time assistant to August Wilson, has crafted a turf war-tale that revolves around the “one last escapade” storyline. John, a self-taught cartoonist fresh out of jail (slam-poet Saul Williams) and Vertus, the king of the block (Christopher Jackson), share a complicated history, i.e., a girl. They’ll band together to avenge the murder of Vertus’ brother, and then—only then—change their ways.
It’s a setup that narrows the possible outcomes, and corners “Holler” into a melodramatic conclusion.
“Holler,” named for a song on Tupac’s second solo album, is set in an unnamed “Midwestern industrial city." Leon and Kreidler have punctuated the musical with a potent cross-section of Tupac’s street poetry (plus two arranged version of his poems), from the uplifting to the despondent and violent. They include the universal “Dear Mama” and “Unconditional Love,” as well as “If I Die 2Nite” and “Whatz Next.”
“Life Goes On”—with its questioning refrain, “How many brothers fell victim to the streets?”—unfolds poignantly during a funeral set early in the first act. You’ll probably feel that it’s a shame Tupac’s not around to hear the murmurs in the audience early in the second act, during “Changes,” when John sings: “We ain’t ready/To see a black president.”
Choreographer Wayne Cilento (“Wicked”) does work that's most notable at the top of the show’s title track, which ends the first act and boasts gravity-defying ensemble members popping out of trap doors. In other places, the choreography feels undercooked ... these guys aren't at the level of the Jets and the Sharks.
Problems aside, there are ideas presented in “Holler” that, too, burst from the stage, such as when Nunn (Jahi Kearse, in a fine performance), who runs with John and Vertus, describes what happens after you actually kill someone, comparing its effects to the PTSD suffered by soldiers returning from war: “I never wanted to shoot nobody, ’cause then you got to live with his name stuck to yours,” Nunn says.
Nunn, it turns out, came to this realization in the heat of a confrontation, and remains clearly grateful his bullet missed its mark. That’s a fresh take on a ghetto cliche, and it makes you wish there was more such dialogue.
No one here “plays” Tupac; rather, actors take their turns singing his songs. Williams, with his haggard and world-weary features (he’s got 15 years on John), looks little like the doe-eyed rapper, but leads the production with an intense performance that requires respect, from the moment he opens the show by descending from a suspended “prison cell.”
Jackson, an “In the Heights” vet, is excellent as a man wanting vengeance, if aware it will perpetuate a cycle. Joshua Boone and Dyllon Burnside bring multiple dimensions to their roles as the youthful friends of the main characters. I wished for much more of Tonya Pinkins (below, with Jackson), who is underutilized as Mrs. Weston, the mother who has lost one son and is afraid to lose another.
“Holler” counts among its producers Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, though the production doesn’t have the rights to his life story. (When’s that coming, please?) The gargantuan Palace has been awkwardly slimmed down by 600 seats, allowing for stadium seating and an exhibit by the National Museum of Hip Hop—a tactic that reduces “pressure” on the sales staff, one producer has said.
We won’t spoil the climax of Kreidler’s story, but a friend and I gathered at the stage door after and said we both wished the musical had ended on a particular note not chosen. “Holler,” which never had an opportunity to percolate elsewhere before its Broadway opening, deserves a more intimate space and more time to work out its kinks.
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” with an open-ended run at The Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Tickets: $59-$139. Call 800-745-3000.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn