Tonya Pinkins, Saul Williams and Saycon Sengbloh; Credit Joan Marcus

Tonya Pinkins, Saul Williams and Saycon Sengbloh; Credit Joan Marcus

Question: What do you do when you have an intimate musical booked into a theatre the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Simple. You start risers at the lip of the stage and let them climb all the way up to the Mezzanine. The people who sit in the top row, as did I, feel a little like Peter Pan. It is a wild effect. Wonder why it was never done before?

As to holler If Ya Hear Mei – prior to this I knew bupkis about Tupac Shakur. Well, a teeny bit. He was a rapper of some note who was murdered in 1996. And I guess I know a little more than that because there were some musical numbers in this show that I sort of recognize.

The night I attended this show I was in a serious minority on this. Which did not stop me one teeny tiny bit from having a great time.

The writing team for this show has cobbled a story together on which Shakur’s music can loosely be hung. The time is now in a Midwestern industrial city. John (Saul Williams) is an ex con fresh from jail. He is bitter and hopeless, dragging himself from one day to the next while he focuses on staying out of trouble and being left alone. While in jail we learn that he allowed visits from no one, even his then girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) Cut off from her lover, she turned to his best friend and fairly big time drug dealer Vertus (Christopher Jackson is superb). John’s release stirs up the past and both Ventes and Corinne fight to reconnect with him, albeit for different reasons.

John returns to a home that has changed a little and not at all. Young black men are standing on the street corners running their mouths while their women alternate between chiding and admiring them. Status is about guns and dope. The emotions are raw and arguments simmering in every corner. If you want to stay out of the line of fire, either stay low or leave town. In some ways this plot is West Side Story meets In The Heights. The people who live packed in together do not want to leave. This point is made clear by the opening number My Block

Living life is but a dream
Hard times is all we see
Every block is kinda mean
But on our block we still prayyyyyy
But on our block we still prayyyyyy…

John soon finds work at the local repair shop with Griffy (Ben Thompson) where he continues to be his ornery self. The shoe drops when Vertus’s brother Benny is shot. No reasons are given. None needed. War is declared with an unseen gang.   Suddenly Benny is more in death than he ever was in life.

What rolls out as far as a plot goes is pretty standard. There are no surprises except in the music, which is delivered with power and finesse. I am uncertain about the music itself as one fine number – Dopefiend’s Diner – clearly uses the melody from Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner – she is not credited in the program, which seems like a serious oversight. So I’m assuming there were a bunch of composers who are also represented here and not credited. How does that work, exactly? In addition there is little chemistry between Williams and Sengbloh, and someone would do well to check the sound level of the orchestra because often the only way to get the lyrics is to read lips.

HOWEVER – This hugely talented cast (oh look, black people actually getting work) nearly makes this show levitate. The vocals are sublime (great to see Tonya Pinkins once again). Standout numbers are Holler if Ya Hear Me, Please Wake Me When I’m Free, Me Against the World and Ghetto Gospel. The chorography by Wayne Cilento (and this is where the seating arrangement makes brilliant sense) is urban, intricate, and serpentine. This IS dance that should be seen from an elevation so that you can appreciate the spectacular design and execution.

What is sickening here is the truth. Black men are thrown away day after day in this country. They are collateral damage in a war whose name no one will speak. Barak Obama may be President, but the trickle down theory has not made it to many a block in many a city. What Tupac wrote 20 years ago has not changed.

Director Kenny Leon has massaged this assemblage of rap, music and story into a show that condemns and celebrates, shames and shouts out, howls and hopes. This is way more than most Broadway shows ever provide, and could serve as a template for the future. The audience at the production I saw was 50/50 black and white with a ton of folks 40 and older. There is an audience for work like this. The Great White Way (named for the street lighting in the 1890’s) is just the place for folks other than white men to tell the same old stories wearing new robes.

Now I am off to acquaint myself with the Shakur canon.

Got on over there!!!

Holler if Ya Hear Me – Book by Todd Kreidler; lyrics by Tupac Shakur; directed by Kenny Leon

WITH: Saul Williams (John), Christopher Jackson (Vertus), Saycon Sengbloh (Corinne), Ben Thompson (Griffy), John Earl Jelks (Street Preacher), Joshua Boone (Darius), Dyllon Burnside (Anthony) and Tonya Pinkins (Mrs. Weston).

Musical staging and choreography by Wayne Cilento; music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters; sets by Edward Pierce; projections by Zachary Borovay; costumes by Reggie Ray; lighting by Mike Baldassari; sound by John Shivers and David Patridge; music coordinator, John Monaco; music director, Zane Mark; associate choreographer, Jared Grimes; scenic designs based on original concepts by David Gallo; hair and wig design by Greg Bazemore; production manager, Theatersmith Associates; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Beverly Jenkins; executive producer/general manager, Richard Martini; associate producer, the Kaplan Family Limited Partnership. Presented by Eric L. Gold, Chunsoo Shin, Jessica Green, Marcy Kaplan Gold, Anita Waxman and Afeni Shakur. At the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, at 47th Street; 877-250-2929, Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.