As we settled into our seats, the recorded voice of Denzil Smith (Mr. Dharuna from the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) let us know that we were in for an over-the-top night. Taj Express would take us behind the scenes for a look at the struggles of Shankar, a young composer trying to make it big in Bollywood musicals. Smith warned us there would be melodrama and romance and bad jokes; if we were looking for good theater, we should leave right away. Fortunately, we did not take his advice, although the jokes were indeed terrible.
Aboard the Taj Express
The title is slyly multilayered. Taj Express is the name of a real train line in India. As a plot point, Shankar’s father worked on the railroad, and the rhythm of the trains influences our hero’s music. It is also the title of the dreadful Bollywood movie that gives Shankar his first big break; our friendly voiceover tells us that the performance will take us on a journey across the dance styles of India.
The show opens on our hopeful Shankar (Ninad Samaddar) asking Saraswati, the goddess of music and wisdom, for success as a composer. The dancing in this section had a strong classical element, and it looked like we were in for some old-style Bollywood. But Shankar hopes to be the next A.R. Rahman, best known in the West for his music in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. So we quickly leave the traditional behind for the urban and eclectic “Jai Ho,” Rahman’s Oscar-winning anthem, performed in a glittering production number that nearly brought us out of our seats. (I may have been bouncing in time to the music myself.)
Shankar soon has a script to score, in which Bollywood star Kareena Kaboom (Tanvi Patil) falls for Arjun (Rajitdev Easwardas), who is running a dance school for children on the streets in the slums of Mumbai. Our dreadful script includes a rescue from monsoon floodwaters, because the romance must always have a meet-cute rescue in the rain. And of course, our impoverished hero turns out to be a fabulously wealthy long-lost prince: cue happily ever after.
Bollywood meets ballroom, hip hop, and more
With this thin armature of a story, Bollywood choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant takes us on an adventure in international dance styles inspired by a soundtrack that includes Rhaman’s Bollywood pop tunes and a catchy title song by Salim and Sulaiman Merchant. In one exciting number, Easwardas’s crew, in white, engages in a street fight with the local street gang in black, an acrobatic performance that put an Indian spin on hip hop and capoeira.
Patil’s flexibility was astonishing, with backbends that seemed to melt onto the floor. She was equally convincing in a well-framed ballroom lift. But this show is at its best in the production numbers, some of which put the dancers in traditional costumes that span the continent with sparkle, and others with a rich urban palette of fringe and miniskirts and gold studs. (According to the program notes, costume designer Bipin Tanna created more than 1,000 costumes for the show.)
Part of the fun for a dance enthusiast was picking out the different styles—salsa, ballroom, contemporary, jazz, belly dance, and hip-hop. A Bhangra move erupts into a hip-hop number, and dance referenced Kathak, with bells on the women’s ankles and a voice counting out the beats of the taal. But I never did quite figure out the dancers in romantic tutus.
Between numbers, Shankar returned with script rewrites from a demanding producer and bickered with guitarist Arjun Dhanraj, whose solos rocked the house during costume changes.
Into the future
During the intermission, I chatted a bit with a woman of my own generation who was finding the whole thing a bit less Indian than she’d expected. At the end of the show, an excited young man rushed over and wanted to know whether she liked it. He clearly had, but this was not your mother’s Bollywood. A generation has grown up with the music of the world at their fingertips. They have taken it as their own, adapted it, and absorbed it into urban landscapes where it jockeys with tradition to create meaning for a generation staring into the future. Taj Express invites us into that experience with joy, a bit of irony, and some amazing stage dancing. So my own answer would be yes, I do like it!
What, When, Where
Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue. Choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant. Presented by the Kimmel Center. November 14, 2019 at the Merriam Theater, 250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Merriam Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an ADA-compliant restroom accessible by elevator, but the venue may pose challenges for audience members with mobility concerns. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].