Tupac Shakur was a ferocious truth-teller, so here’s the truth about Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new musical based on the late rapper’s lyrics: this is a dramatically weak attempt to put hip-hop, and the work of a supreme hip-hop artist, on the theatrical stage. The creators of In the Heights, a much more polished Broadway attempt to incorporate rap, adjusted their show through pre-Broadway productions; Holler, with its propulsive beats and liberal profanity, went the workshop route, and it arrives at the Palace Theatre without benefit of sufficient paying-customer feedback or critical eyes from outside the creative circle.
Audiences respond to the performance of some of their favourite Tupac songs, the tremendous “California Love”, for example; but they are starved, in the Palace’s custom-adjusted, stadium-style seating, of drops of humour or dramatic accumulation.
Kenny Leon, the director of a heart-catching recent A Raisin in the Sun, lacks an instinctive feel for musical-theatre, and the verve-aware Wayne Cilento, who did the musical staging and choreography, is unable to make the cast of exciting dancers pop more than here and there. I stopped counting the number of scenes that petered out, starting and stopping with actors wandering on and off the rather spartan stage.
The show’s problems begin and end with the book, written by Todd Kreidler. The producers didn’t secure the rights to Tupac’s life story – he was born in 1971 in East Harlem, and was murdered in 1996 in Las Vegas – so Kreidler came up with a scenario that takes place in the present day, in a Midwestern industrial city. The urban atmosphere is so generic, however, that the location may as well be the moon.
The plot is basic: a young man named Benny is killed, and his brother, Vertus, and a sprung-from-jail friend, John, vow to avenge him. But as Benny is dispatched before his character is established, we struggle to care about the outcome. The emotional impact stems from the genius of the songs themselves: “Dear Mama”, performed by Vertus (the superlative Christopher Jackson) and a chorus; “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” rapped by Vertus and John (the authoritative Saul Williams).
Daryl Waters, the musical supervisor, respects the lyrical needs but strips away some of the rawness in favour of 1990s R&B and hip-hop arrangements. For a project aiming to avoid an overly old-school feel, the sound comes across as awfully retro.