One would think, or at least sincerely hope, that “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the new musical incorporating songs and poems by the late rapper and hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur (including “California Love,” “Me Against the World,” “Dear Mama” and others), would turn out to be an innovative, socially conscious work.
Unlike the mainstream-friendly “In the Heights,” “Holler” brings authentic rap music, with the profanity intact, to Broadway. Likewise, inner-city African-American youths have not been seriously explored in musical theater.
The selection of Kenny Leon, who just won a Tony Award for his revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” as its director was a promising sign, as was the casting of Tonya Pinkins (“Caroline or Change”), Christopher Jackson (“In the Heights”) and, most intriguingly, slam poet Saul Williams. News also leaked that the seating of the Palace Theatre had been reconfigured to make the space more intimate.
So it’s extremely disheartening to report that “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is a total mess and misfire. Perhaps it needed more time for development. Not only did the show not receive an out-of-town tryout or a prior Off-Broadway production, its preview period was unusually short.
Rather than focus on Shakur’s short and tumultuous life, which would have provided some structure, “Holler If Ya Hear Me” integrates – or at least attempts to integrate – Tupac’s songs into an aimless and confusing tale of gang violence in a generic urban landscape that is full of undeveloped characters. In other words, it’s a really poor imitation of “West Side Story.”
In doing so, it falls prey to the same problems faced by so many other jukebox musicals. But unlike the proudly idiotic “Mamma Mia!” and “Rock of Ages,” these problems can’t be laughed away at “Holler.”
There is virtually no scenery, just a bare stage and a few projections. More often than not, the dense lyrics cannot be understood, thus defeating the purpose of a show meant to celebrate Shakur’s voice. The 22-member cast, which will alternatively spring into ferocity or heartfelt lament, works hard but cannot rescue the show.
Audience members, whether they are theatergoers who are completely unfamiliar with rap or fans of Shakur attending their first Broadway show, deserve better than this.
If you go: “Holler If Ya Hear Me” plays an open run at the Palace Theatre. 1564 Broadway. hollerifyahearme.com.