Queens Boulevard (the musical)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 6, 2007
Queens Boulevard (the musical) is America: a celebration of the Melting Pot that defines our country but that we too often take for granted or relegate to myth even when it's right under our nose. (Queens Boulevard (the street) may also be America, but that's a subject for geographers and sociologists.)
This show, which is as unlike traditional American musical comedy as any other Charles Mee play is unlike realistic kitchen-sink drama, begins joyously and boisterously at the wedding reception of Vijay and Shizuko, to which we in the audience have apparently been invited. There's a DJ on high spinning tunes and keeping up the chatter, members of the wedding party are handing out candy, and the general feeling of camaraderie and inclusion is gorgeous and infectious. You should know, by the way, that all of this is happening before the play proper actually begins.
And then Queens Boulevard does really start up, with the entrance of the bride and groom, and a grand wedding party commences, filled with dances that are an amalgamation of the couple's respective traditions (he is Indian, she is Japanese) and contemporary American pop everything. Amalgamation is the key idea, here and throughout: it is in its embrace of diversity, unabashed and uncommented on, that the show really soars.
The reception ends and Vijay and Shizuko go home for their wedding night. Shizuko wants to take a short nap, and as she leaves Vijay gets an inspiration. At the reception, Shizuko was given—she doesn't know by whom—a "Flower of Heaven," a startling gift that she truly loves. So Vijay decides that while she rests he will get her another. And so he exits their house and arrives on Queens Boulevard, which turns out to be Oz and Wonderland and any other kind of surreal dreamland you can imagine, where Vijay will take a journey that will eventually lead him back to his bride, but only after a series of remarkable adventures and lessons about the nature of love.
When she discovers Vijay missing, Shizuko will venture onto the boulevard herself, for a few adventures of her own.
The scenes that follow have names in Mee's script that reveal the arc of the story: "Death," "Fertility," "The Future," "Doing Something," "Sex," "Unfaithful Husbands and Wives," "Freedom," "Birth," "Scenes from a Marriage," "Shizuko in the Underworld," Vijay in the Underworld," and finally, "The Blissful Couple." Queens Boulevard is a sort of allegory, stitched together from a variety of sources (from Homer and James Joyce to Valerie Solanus (the woman who shot Andy Warhol) and multiple Internet blogs of Queens residents) and more-or-less shaped into a narrative inspired by the KathaKali play The Flower of Good Fortune (which is itself based on part of the Mahabharata). The songs, similarly, come from everywhere: ABBA, traditional folk songs from Okinawa, Iran, and Ireland, and the Sri Lankan hip-hop artist M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam), among many others.
The effect of all this—here it is again—amalgamation is occasionally profound, often very funny, and exhilarating and touching at the same time. When Shizuko's mother, a proper-seeming Japanese lady, breaks into "Dancing Queen" in a crystal-clear operatic soprano (kudos to Ruth Zhang, who steals the show with this unexpected moment), it provides startling and hilarious reminder of how small the world has gotten. When Vijay encounters his friend Abdi on the way to bury his just-deceased mother (wheeling the coffin himself, no less), we find ourselves facing the opposite conclusion, that the world is large and weird and alien, even around the corner from our own house. The truth, presented in the (sur-/alternate) reality of Queens Boulevard embraces both ideas and ultimately resides in between them: all of the colorful characters we meet, from the Paan Beedi Guy on the street corner to the cabbies in a local dive bar to the middle-aged male gossips at the Russian Baths, feel familiar and strange simultaneously, and the wisdom they share resonates in just the same ways.
Leads Amir Arison (Vijay) and Michi Barall (Shizuko) anchor the piece, but they're mostly foils for the eccentric characters around them, such as the aforementioned mother and Abdi (who is played with relish by Arian Moayed). The diverse, versatile ensemble play dozens of roles among them; standouts include Jon Norman Schneider (who gets a very funny speech about Asian men's low self-esteem), Emily Donahoe (the beauty of whose singing rivals Zhang's), and Debargo Sanyal, who excels hilariously as the Paan Beedi Guy and several others. The rest of the company includes Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Buell, Demosthenes Chrysan, Geeta Citygirl, William Jackson Harper, and Jodi Lee, all of whom have at least one moment to shine. Satya Bhabha plays the DJ and then a sort of phantom presence throughout (and also doubles as on-stage musician); he's terrific.
Mimi Lien's colorful set conveys the essence of the eponymous locale vividly, though I wondered if maybe we shouldn't have been able to see it all in the first scenes, before Vijay leaves his home and journeys into the wild dreamland of the boulevard. Similarly, I wondered afterward if director Davis McCallum and author Mee should have made the dividing line between Home and Boulevard more visceral and clear—the easy naturalism of the wedding reception in no way prepares us for the fantastical places that the show is about to go.
But these quibbles notwithstanding, I had a delightful time at Queens Boulevard (the musical), and its ultimate sturdy faith in love and its demonstration of the potency of diversity thrilled and excited me enormously. Here's one thing I'm certain of: you have never seen a musical quite like Queens Boulevard. If theatre outside the bounds of the ordinary interests you, then I urge you to check it out.