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Glitz on the Fritz 

Playhouse Square's ode to Bollywood looks lovely, but rings empty.

All wet: Bombay Dreams' effects include surging water jets.
  • All wet: Bombay Dreams' effects include surging water jets.
The contradictions found in our daily conversation often provide unexpected pleasures, once we recognize them for what they are. But while such laughable oxymorons as "corporate ethics" and "open secret" reveal their opposing elements readily enough, others aren't quite so amusing -- especially when they're enmeshed in a theatrical production that asks a hefty admission price.

The perfect theatrical example of rampaging contradictions now treads the Palace Theatre stage in the form of Bombay Dreams, a glitzy, sparkly nonentity conceived in part by Andrew Lloyd Webber. With a plot centered on the cinematic phenomenon of Bollywood -- India's film industry, which produces far more movies each year than Hollywood does -- this musical extravaganza attempts to illustrate too many concepts in crayon-bright colors.

A collision of contradictions turns this work into a goulash of opposing ideas. Dreams tries to salute the silly spirit of Bollywood, make fun of it, comment on the harsh economic realities of life in urban India, and develop a semiserious story line involving murder and betrayal. That's about three tasks too many, and it turns the show into a tasteless Indian dish that won't curry favor with those who relish competent storytelling.

Of course, the production's "out" is that Bollywood stories are all trumped-up clichés to begin with, so what's to complain about? These yarns usually feature handsome young men and lithe young women, who vault from poverty to wealth and happiness by continually stumbling into elaborately choreographed dance numbers, accompanied by scads of passersby -- all of whom hoof in perfect unison. This production is true to that curious film heritage as it introduces Akaash, a heroic young slum-dweller practicing his John Travolta arm thrusts and disco moves, and yearning for stardom. In a trice he meets Priya, a gorgeous young woman whose father just happens to be (you'll never guess) one of the bigwigs in Bollywood. You can write the rest of this epic yourself in three minutes, even if you spend two minutes finding your pencil.

Although some of the songs penned by A.R. Rahman have an infectious lilt, the tunes become repetitive and tend to blur together. The lyrics by Don Black lean toward either the obvious ("Some live and die in debt/Others make millions on the internet") or the banal ("Like the eagle was born to fly/I was born to be seen on a screen in Bollywood"). And since the character arcs for everyone are so brutally elementary, there are no surprises in the dialogue to intrigue the mind in the short stretches between dances. Book authors Meera Syal and Thomas Meehan never stretch for clever phrasing if a tired gag will do: When a couple of characters observe a young woman wearing high heels, one says, "How do you walk in those?" The other predictably responds, "Carefully."

Comic relief is supposedly provided by a quartet of eunuchs, led by Akaash's friend Sweetie, but there isn't enough wit or edge in Sweetie's character to develop into a fully realized sidekick role. This in turn dampens the climactic showdown, when Vikram, Priya's fiancé, reveals his true colors and becomes Snidely Whiplash to Akaash's ever-trustworthy Dudley Do-Right.

On the other hand, if you're the type who swoons over a color-saturated stage, lots of shiny and swaying tinsel, and no-holds-barred production effects, this may be your cup of chai. There's even one song in which the female performers dance in a circle of fountains that send jets of water 20 feet in the air. Inevitably, some of the women found themselves straddling a jet stream during this number, providing an impromptu water-pony ride and possibly giving them added motivation to come back the next night. (This wet sari contest is quite a sight, even though it takes an army of guys manning squeegees and mops to dry out the stage as the play goes on around them.)

In the role of Akaash, Sachin Bhatt has a pleasant manner and a serviceable voice, but he hardly blazes as brightly as you might expect from an instant movie star, in or out of India. Instead of dominating the playing area, he blends into the background, even when onstage alone. Reshma Shetty does a better job as his love interest, Priya, turning the sweet ballad "Is This Love?" into one of the few genuine moments in the entire proceedings. Sandra Allan also provides some fleeting moments of amusement as the movie star Rani, though her diva complaints and peeves are all too programmed.

In short, Bombay Dreams is Starlight Express, with sarongs replacing roller skates. Gimmick-driven shows like this one require a consistent tone (preferably tongue-in-cheek) to make the artifice palatable. But in attempting to be all things to all people, this tarted-up dream is just a flashy zero, an iridescent mediocrity.

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