By Donna Herman
One of the reasons that I love the theater is that it often affords me the opportunity to immerse myself in a world I might not otherwise get to experience. In a very present and visceral way. It can be an uplifting or a disturbing occurrence, but widening my world view is always good. The Abingdon Theatre Company’s The Boy Who Danced On Air, the new musical with book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne and music by Tim Rosser, is a perfect case in point.
Set in modern day Afghanistan, the story revolves around the centuries-old practice of bacha bazi, where wealthy men buy young boys from poor families, train them to dance, parade them around at parties and often abuse them. This is a practice and a world I knew nothing about before I walked into the June Havoc Theatre the other night. Even though it was supposedly mentioned in The Kite Runner, a 2003 novel by Afghani-American writer Khaled Hosseini I read and loved. And there was a 2010 PBS Documentary called The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan which I didn’t see until after I saw the play.
This documentary was the inspiration for Sohne and Rosser to write The Boy Who Danced on Air. The musical is essentially a love triangle between two of the batchas and one of their owners. Paiman (Troy Iwata), is a young boy who has been sold to Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), and taught to dance. Jahandar, who believes the tradition of bacha bazi serves a noble purpose even though forbidden by the Quran and civil law, winds up falling in love with Paiman and treating him kindly. Paiman falls in love with dancing and doesn’t see himself as being oppressed since Jahandar doesn’t allow him to be passed around and treats him reverently. He also winds up falling in love with Feda (Nikhil Saboo), the bacha bazi of Jahandar’s cousin Zemar (Osh Ghanimah), who does not treat his bacha with the same loving kindness as his cousin treats Paiman.
I admit to being riveted by the story while wishing that the production was a little better. There’s a lot to like but I can’t say I loved it. Clearly, the story and the setting are unique and interesting and deserve to be told. However, as they say in the Author’s Note in the Playbill, while writing the show, they found themselves more and more drawn to the character of Jahandar, and wanted to portray him as a fully formed character whose feelings are in conflict with his beliefs. Which they’ve done admirably, and Jonathan Raviv brings him brilliantly to life on the stage in a nuanced and masterful performance.
I just wish that they had spent a little more effort on the character of Paiman instead of letting him be such a scared, generic victim. Other characters talk about what a beautiful boy he is, and how exquisitely he dances, but I didn’t see that on stage. For one thing, Nejla Yatkin’s choreography, while it may have been authentic to the region, didn’t read as anything special. The title is The Boy Who Danced On Air. I would have liked to see more lift, more of a sense of weightlessness in the dance, more transcendence. I know it’s a small stage, but what about the whirling dervish moves that are talked about so frequently? And Troy Iwata didn’t give us the sense of joy and abandon I would expect from someone who is escaping reality by dancing.
What did work well however, was the music and lyrics, the costumes by Andrea Lauer, and the scenic design by Christopher & Justin Swader and lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao in the beginning scenes when Jahandar first bought Paiman and was teaching him to dance. The use of a scrim with backlighting to make Paiman small and Jahandar big was brilliantly conceived and executed. Also, it allowed 5 cast members to seem like many more as they played extras whose faces you couldn’t make out behind the scrim. The costumes were also excellent. One of the exciting notes of the production was the constant tension between modern and ancient Afghanistan which was greatly facilitated by the costumes. Because of the barbaric subject matter, you’d forget this was taking place in modern times until a character’s cell phone would ring, or you’d catch a glimpse of a wristwatch. So well done.
I think with some work, this could become an important piece of theater. I certainly think it’s an important issue that should be exposed and explored and I applaud the effort.
The Boy Who Danced On Air, Book & Lyrics by Charlie Sohne, Music by Tim Rosser, Directed by Tony Speciale, Choreography by Nejla Yatkin, Music Direction by David Gardos
WITH: Deven Kolluri (Unknown Man); Jonathan Raviv (Jahandar); Troy Iwata (Paiman); Osh Ganimah (Zemar); Nikhil Saboo (Feda); Eylem Basaldi (violin); Ben Gallina (upright bass); David Gardos (conductor, piano); Hidayat Honari (guitar and rubab); Philip Mayer (percussion)
Scenic Design by Christopher & Justin Swader; Costume Design by Andrea Lauer; Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Design by Justin Graziani; Prop Design by Jerry Marsini; Fight Director, Dan Renkin; Casting by Karie Koppel; Dramaturg, Thomas Dolan; Production Stage Manager, Christopher Flores. Presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company, Artistic Director, Tony Speciale. At the June Havoc Theatre through June 11. For tickets visit: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/969763