Ari Afsar (left) in "Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Make no mistake, the allure of La Jolla Playhouse’s “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical” is the Punjabi folk dance bhangra. Its propulsive beats and rhythmic beauty are likely to stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the story around wrapped around them, about the lead-up to an intercollegiate bhangra competition. There is one song ,“Toledo,” that touches on the very real issue of cultural expectations, but the storytelling of this world premiere is secondary to the energy of the music and dancing onstage, which are bangin’.
“Bhangin’ It” was originally intended for the Playhouse’s 2020-’21 season, which was waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the musical, created by Mike Lew and spouse Rehana Lew Mirza (book) and Sam Willmott (music), and directed by Stafford Arima, is winding up the theater’s abbreviated returned-to-the-stage season, following “The Garden” and “To The Yellow House.” The vibrant choreography by Rujuta Vaidya and breathtaking costumes by Linda Cho instill absolute joy in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The presence onstage of dhol and tabla performer Deep Singh complements a spirited orchestra in the pit.
Now, as to that tale of the battling students at fictitious East Lansing University in Michigan: It happens that Mary (the likable Ari Afsar) has been forced out of the Tigres bhangra ensemble for daring to want to add to its repertoire dance steps honoring the mother she lost. Chief among her detractors – and the Tigre who forces Mary out – is Preeti (Vinithra Raj), who doesn’t hide her contempt for the fact that Mary is only “half Indian.”
With the complicity of her college pal Sunita (Jaya Joshi), the industrious Mary decides to recruit dancers for her own bhangra troupe, who come to be known as the Wood Ducks. The volunteers are unlikely candidates. They include a White professor at the university (Jason Heil), the questionably coordinated Noah (Henry Walter Greenberg), a dashing DJ (Brandon Contreras), a basketballer (Terrance Johnson) and snarky, political-minded Sunita. When they all realize that they need a bhangra teacher, too, they enlist the owner of a restaurant (Alka Nayyar), who puts them to work in her kitchen … though there’s method to her management.
The first act culminates with a food fight between the Tigres and the Wood Ducks that lays waste to restaurateur Rekha’s Samosa Hut. This may be “typical” college behavior, but it feels rather trite as a climax.
While Mary’s devotion to her mother manifests itself in the musical’s loveliest dance number, and her standing up for her cultural identity is certainly a noble plot point, I never felt fully invested in “Bhangin’ It,” least of all in which side would win the big bhangra competition. What I wanted was dancing and drumming. The more the better.
There is a splashy Bollywood-type number in Act 2, “Commit,” and the post-curtain performances are roof-raising. The rest gets us where we need to go, but it’s two and a half hours’ worth of getting there.
The “Bhangin’ It” cast is working hard and having fun. That’s clear. Besides Afsar, who was born in San Diego and is a UCLA grad, there’s Contreras, who enjoys chemistry with her during their “Toledo” number. This narrative possibility is not explored further. Nayyar is a memorable presence as Rekha, whose part, too, could have been given more complexity.
In the end, “Bhangin’ It” doesn’t nail it. It does entertain.
“Bhangin’ It” runs through April 17 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.