If you’re not a fan of either of the above, you may want to skip Holler if Ya Hear Me, the new play now featured at the Palace Theater on the Great White Way. (Tupac purists will probably need to suppress the urge to correct the first word to ‘Holla”). The original musical is inspired by the fallen hip-hop icon’s songs, and arguably breaks new ground as Broadway’s first completely rap-inspired work.
Don’t come looking for Tupac’s autobiography set to a musical score – the narrative is entirely original, knit together with the strands of the rapper’s music. Holler if Ya Hear Me is slightly reminiscent of In the Heights (the award-winning musical set in Washington Heights, with a bit of West Side Story thrown in for cultural context. The story centers on a felon named John, who returns to his old neighborhood to discover that age-old adage: you can never quite go home again. His girlfriend Corinne (played by Broadway veteran and powerhouse vocalist Saycon Sengbloh), has taken up with Vertus, a friend and former running partner.
As one might expect from an ex-con, John pulsates with anger and resentment, in a way that encapsulates the play’s central themes of urban violence, alienation and ineluctable tragedy. The plot itself seems to begin midstream–somewhat analogous to walking into a movie half an hour or so late–which leaves the characters woefully underdeveloped. Early in the play, the death of one of the players becomes the impetus for the narrative, which (almost predictably) centers on all that ails the inner city and the inability of its residents to extricate themselves from it. With all that said, it becomes nearly impossible to feel emotionally invested in the characters because you never really cultivate a sense of familiarity with them.
The claustrophobic, hemmed-in feel of the set fuels the sense of helplessness felt by the characters, and provides an ideal backdrop for Shakur’s iconic lyrics. Corrine croons like a caged songbird; John goes from a jail cell to mental and social sequestration; Vertus is held hostage by both his obligations to his family and his street cred.
Thankfully, Holler if Ya Hear Me resists the impulse to transform itself into a spoken word-fest or poetry slam. The play’s entire raison d’être is to serve as a vehicle for Tupac’s music, and witness his bleak Weltanschauung brought to life in song. In fact, the musical score is the show’s saving grace, and it transports you to a time when hits like “I Get Around,” “California Love,” and “Dear Mama” ruled the airwaves. Virtually everyone in the show attended by your reviewer bobbed their head along to every song, or sang along silently. Therein lies the play’s principal attraction: the reminiscence it triggers for days when hip-hop itself was far more raw and elemental, teeming with social consciousness, and chronicling–for better or worse–urban alienation.
Holler if Ya Hear Me is hardly August Wilson-esque, and not everyone will like it (in the interest of full disclosure, your reviewer hates musicals). At a recent preview performance, your reviewer noticed an elderly couple perched in comfortable Orchestra row seats…but had vanished after the intermission. Sure, they may have been called away unexpectedly, or we’re late for another engagement. That said, be warned that Holler if Ya Hear Me is suffused with strong language, sexually suggestive lyrics, and mild violence that may be offensive to some.
Still, it’s best to just sit back, nod your head to the beat, and even sing along if you want. Warts and all, that’s what good music (and the plays on which they are based) is all about.