There’s lots to love about “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical,” which opened in its world premiere Sunday night at La Jolla Playhouse.
The splashy, high-energy musical about competitive U.S. intercollegiate bhangra dancing is jubilant, funny, accessible and entertaining, with clever lyrics and a diverse score by Sam Willmott, as well as scene after scene of exuberant bhangra dancing, a highly athletic form of folk dance from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.
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Bookwriters Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza have filled the musical with diverse, well-crafted characters, quirky humor and touching moments. But their reliance on clichéd musical theater tropes make the story feel less unique than it could be. There’s the “Full Monty” team of misfit dancers, the “Lion King”-like child finding her destiny after a parent’s death, the “Bring It On” competitor who breaks all the rules, the beautiful but exclusionary “Mean Girls” villainess and the “Mamma Mia”-style post-curtain-call finale. There’s even a “wax on, wax off”-like “Karate Kid”-inspired musical number.
But the musical’s multitalented star, San Diego native Ari Afsar, is so sincere and committed in the lead role of mixed-race Mary that she grounds and enriches the show with heart, authenticity and emotional depth.
Directed by Stafford Arima with choreography by Rujuta Vaidya and musical staging by Lisa Shriver, “Bhangin’ It” is set at fictional East Lansing University in Michigan, where the college’s bhangra team, the Tigres, have made it into the national finals.
Longtime teammate Mary, who is half-Indian and half-White, begs team leader Amit to let her to add some of her late mother’s kathak (Indian classical dance) steps to the team’s routine before nationals. But controlling sophomore teammate Preeti, whose parents are both Indian, is both a Bhangra and blood purist, and she pushes Mary off the team.
So, Mary assembles her own untrained and ethnically diverse Bhangra team, the Wood Ducks, and she uses a loophole in the competition rules to get her team into nationals, as well. Much of the show’s humor is in this wildly mixed bag of awkward dancers, who include a widowed 60-year-old professor, a gay Black basketball player, Mary’s hard-partying activist roommate and a petite Filipina with a passion for glitter and glue pens.
An Indian word glossary in the printed program wouldn’t hurt (Mary calls herself a “desi,” which I found out only later in a Google search meant a descendant of the Indian diaspora). But audience members don’t need any pre-show prep to understand and appreciate the bhangra world. And Willmott’s score — supplemented with Indian dance music by Deep Singh, who appears onstage several times expertly playing the dhol drum — is an engaging and ear-pleasing mix of Broadway, pop, Latin, hip-hop and rap numbers.
Among the show’s best songs is the hilarious “Khaana, Khaana,” a Gilbert and Sullivan-worthy patter song about the khaana (food) on the menu at the Samosa Hut restaurant, owned by the Wood Ducks’ dance coach Rekha. “If This Were a Thing” is a heartwarming ensemble piece sung by the hapless Wood Ducks. Also nice are the duet “Toledo,” sung by Mary and her romantic interest, the Dominican American Billy (fine-voiced Brandon Contreras) and Mary’s earworm-worthy ballad about her mom, “Erase You.” There’s also “Commit,” a pull-out-all-the-stops, Bollywood-style, song-and-dance number set in a drugstore.
The 21-member cast, luxurious by COVID-era standards, is filled with strong performances. Alka Nayyar is elegant and reserved as Samosa Hut owner Rekha. Bilaal Avaz is joyous and boyish as Tigres captain Amit. Vinithra Raj finds sympathetic notes in the uncompromising Tigres teammate Preeti. Jason Heil is sweetly clumsy as Wallace, the widowed professor on the Wood Ducks. Jaya Joshi is comically ebullient as Sunita, Mary’s ultra-feminist roommate. And Henry Walter Greenberg is oddly endearing as Noah, the geeky Jewish Wood Duck.
Robert Brill’s scenic design has bright visual pop, but its set pieces are easy to slide on and off the stage, making for quick transitions in the fast-paced 2 hour, 25-minute musical. Lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, costume designer Linda Cho and projection designer David Bengali clearly revel in the rich and vibrant color palette used in all of the dance scenes. And sound designer Jonathan Deans keeps both the miked performers and the unamplified instruments crisp and clear throughout.
“Bhangin’ It” touches on a few hot-button issues like ethnic purity and cultural appropriation, but they’re more sidelines to the musical’s central focus on friendship, belonging and fun. “Bhangin’ It” was built to be a feel-good musical and, fortunately for showgoers, it’s a very well-built machine.
‘Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 17.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse at Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: $25 to $87
Phone: (858) 550-1010
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 48 hours of performance, along with proof of ID. Masks required for all indoors.