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Monday, April 17, 2017

Movie Music Monday: In anticipation of boarding the Taj Express in SoCal

Film Flam Flummox


After successfully touring in various cities around the world since June 2013, Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue finally made its debut on U.S. stages this year, with its long awaited premiere engagements in Southern California happening this week, with one show at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge and two at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. While the show has been performed for very nearly four years, never mind in the States the last few months, very little has been written or spoken in much detail about the show--and the scarce pieces that do exist generally only speak in generalities and from the perspective of a viewer almost completely unacquainted with Hindi popular cinema as a whole, much less with its singular vocabulary of music and dance that the production purports to showcase and celebrate. I will be catching the show at one of its Costa Mesa performances, so I hope to do my part in helping shed some insight into the show from the viewpoint of a longtime Bollywood/Kollywood/Tollywood enthusiast this weekend.

In the meantime, though, I can only speculate on what awaits based on what I do know about the show. The presence of the word "revue" suggests a showcase of unconnected dance/musical numbers, but from what I understand, there is a narrative thread linking them all. Considering that the various video promos on the show's official YouTube channel use a number of hit songs from popular Bollywood films in the last decade-plus, it's safe to presume that it will take a jukebox musical approach to song selection. And given that the choreographer of the show, Vaibhavi Merchant--whose sister Shruti, also a renowned choreographer, is the director of the production--is a celebrated veteran of Bollywood film and created some extremely memorable, if not downright iconic, musical numbers throughout her career, perhaps many of those indelible cinematic moments will be recreated live on stage in the show. With that in mind, as preparation and possible preview of what is to hit the boards in SoCal this week, I highlight five of my favorite Merchant-choreographed film numbers over the years that may end up in the production in some form.

"O Rey Chhori" from Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

This love duet-cum-triad from the Oscar-nominated film from director Ashutosh Gowariker and producer/star Aamir Khan was my first exposure to Merchant's work and Bollywood in general. There isn't any strenuous dancing on display here, as suits A.R. Rahman's low-key, mid-tempo composition, but Khan's leading lady Gracy Singh gets to put in some lovely Merchant-choreographed classical moves, while third wheel Rachel Shelley gets to do a little snippet of Western ballroom dance.


"Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)

Merchant reteamed with Rai and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for this playful early number from this powerful romantic tragedy. There's nothing in this scene that is dance per se, but it reinforces how any movement in the space on screen can be choreographed and structured to the music for maximum expressive and emotional effect.


"Bairi Piya" from Devdas (2002)

Merchant reteamed with Rai and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for this playful early number from this powerful romantic tragedy. There's nothing in this scene that is dance per se, but it reinforces how any movement in the space on screen can be choreographed and structured to the music for maximum expressive and emotional effect.


"Kajra Re" from Bunty aur Babli (2005)

This item number is Rai's only scene in this caper comedy, and its initial novelty appeal before the film's release was seeing her in a number with the legendary Amitabh Bachchan and his son, Abhishek--who a couple of years later would become her father-in-law and husband, respectively. But the reason why this number has endured over the years is the lively routine Merchant built around Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's infectious tune, as usual brought to exquisite life by Rai's seductive precision, with a side offering of the Bachchans' exuberance.


"Crazy Kiya Re" from Dhoom:2 (2006)

Merchant can do more than more traditional dance-rooted numbers, as reinforced by this incredibly steamy pop/hip-hop number, where Rai seduces co-star Hrithik Roshan--and the entire moviegoing audience the world over--with the sexy siren song of her moves.


Whether or not any of these numbers appear in whole or in part in Taj Express remains to be seen, but no doubt Vaibhavi and Shruti Merchant will serve up something just as energetic and entertaining to the live stage as they have the silver screen.

Taj Express plays at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge for one night only on Wednesday, April 19, and then a two-night engagement at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Friday, April 21 and Saturday, April 22. Tickets are now on sale for Northridge here and Costa Mesa here.

(Special thanks to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Quintessence Entertainment, and Columbia Artists Management)

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