What do you get if you mix 1950s Bollywood kitsch with the Golden Age of Hollywood? Bunty Berman Presents…, now playing in a world premiere off-Broadway production at Theatre Row. If you want to get cerebral about what the exuberant, frothy confection means, you might ruminate on multiculturism’s rich creations’ being so much more than the sum of their parts. Or you might just hum a line from “Bombay,” the opening number — “It’s not profound, it isn’t trite” — and bask in the sheer joyous energy of this delightful show.
The eponymous Bunty Berman is the producer of a failing Bollywood studio whose fortunes have been inextricably linked to Raj, an aging male star. Raj’s expanding waistline and receding hairline and sex appeal contribute to the studio’s latest film being a flop, and Bunty must find a way to revive his movie career. It’s all fabulous fairytale stuff, where the tea boy can rise to stardom and the studio’s patient secretary can eventually seduce her man, all while singing and dancing to rousing songs inspired by Hollywood classics. Some slick slapstick routines and more than a nod to the cross-dressing tradition of British pantomime, including three “ladies” in burkas at the premiere of Bunty’s latest film, contribute to the hilarity.
Bunty Berman Presents… is the work of British writer and actor Ayub Khan Din, who is unexpectedly starring in his first musical. He stepped in at the last minute after Eric Avari was injured in rehearsals. Din had not been on stage for 20 years but gamely took the lead at the suggestion of the director, Scott Elliott. Such “the show must go on” chutzpah seems entirely fitting for a story that suggests that, in showbiz, anything can happen. Din’s performance leans towards the Rex Harrison tradition of talking rather than singing the lyrics but is nevertheless compelling.
The last minute change of cast must have tested the skills of the other actors who rise to the occasion and then some. Sorab Wadia is memorably campy as the has-been star Raj. Without giving away too many of the delightful visual jokes, Wadia steals a number of scenes with little more than a raised eyebrow. Lipica Shah, as the up and coming starlet, has a voice and looks that could fill a far larger theatre, and Nick Choksi as the tea boy who knew her before she was famous has an impish charm. Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte and Debargo Sanyal, meanwhile, are a pair of verbose gangsters obsessed with finding just the right word for the occasion. Their roles seem in part homage to the Shakespeare-spouting thugs in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.
The ingenious sets, designed by Derek McLane, enhanced by beautiful projections of Indian scenes and recreations of Bollywood posters among others by Wendall K.Harrington, transform the small stage into studio soundstages, a gangster’s nightclub and Bunty’s office. The rear end of a papier-mache elephant is a less sophisticated but equally innovative visual highlight.
Din is perhaps best known for his play East is East, later a film, which draws heavily on his own British-Pakistani upbringing. In a program note he explains that Bunty Berman comes from both his love of Bollywood and Marx Brothers films. He writes that he hopes the new show will “be readily accessible to all and not reliant on knowledge of Indian cinema and to open up that world easily to a newcomer’s eye.”
Let’s hope Bunty Berman has enough mass appeal to transfer to Broadway because it’s begging for a Bollywood scale cast of thousands and a big stage where its hummable songs and heartwarming humor can reach their full potential.