"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is surprising nuanced and definitely worth seeing. Credit: Joan Marcus
In “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” Tupac returns to the stage. The new musical boasting his music and lyrics gives his messages all new life in 2014.
The production, which opened on Broadway tonight at the Palace Theatre, is deliberately streamlined, allowing the music and lyrics to shine: It’s a concert with legs. The sets are sparse, so Wayne Cilento’s choreography captures your full attention. The plot is deep and rich, yet surprisingly uncomplicated (see below).
The script honors its themes of socioeconomic disparity and life on the streets without pandering. (As soon as F-bombs start flying, you know they aren’t catering to the deep pockets of the family values crowd; ironically, the theater last hosted “Annie.”) And although lighting is one of those categories that’s too-often overlooked, in this musical it stands out as a key component to the exemplary aesthetic onstage.
You can also see director Kenny Leon’s stamp all over it: The way he works with actors to bring out their best is something you can see in their faces, hear in their voices and feel in their intensity. Every moment counts. It’s no wonder he just won the 2014 Tony Award for his work on “A Raisin in the Sun” — and with “Holler” he might have just launched himself into the running for a consecutive trophy in 2015.
It doesn’t matter that Shakur’s words are taken off the streets of L.A. and deposited in the Midwest: It serves to remind us how universal these truths are (and his popular number, “California Love,” is still smartly worked in). The characters split up the lyrics, giving them the voice of multitudes, and it’s enjoyable to see that many have their own solos, back stories and moments in the spotlight. There’s a real sense of community; one man’s burdens are shared by all — and such is the world, 20 years ago and today, which is why this is as much a new musical as an ongoing legacy. In “Holler,” 2Pac is alive again.
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" highlights Tupac's messages about relationships: romantic and familial, as well as between a person and his or her community. Credit: Joan Marcus
What’s the plot of ‘The Tupac Musical’?
John (Saul Williams) has just been released from jail after killing the man who killed his father. Back at home, his best friend Vertus (Chris Jackson) has recently discarded his drug-dealing past. But he’s still scheming for ways to earn quick cash — and secretly seeing John’s former girlfriend, Corinne (Tracee Beazer). The block is spooked when a new gang tries to hustle Vertus and get him back in the game. And they mean business — the inciting incident of the play is when they kill his brother to force his hand. Half of the neighborhood just wants peace — including Vertus’ mom (Tonya Pinkins), whom he financially supports — but revenge seems much more tangible. When crime is all you know, opportunities are scarce and poverty is just a paycheck away, is it possible to break the cycle and change?