Richardson — A pool of light shines downstage and a lanky figure steps into it praying to the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, and music for the feat ahead of him. A dancer representing the goddess Saraswati appears and is flanked by two other female dancers dressed in long skirts and midriff tops. The women roll their wrists, flex their hands, and isolate their torsos in an ornate traditional dance as the prayer goes on.
The light grows brighter and the audience learns that the young man is a composer who is looking for inspiration. He’s been commissioned to create a musical score for an upcoming Bollywood film and wants it to be among the ranks of A.R Rahman’s song “Jai Ho” (written for the film Slumdog Millionaire).
Dancers flood the stage as the prayer ends, a rapid guitar rift and drumming electrify the atmosphere, and the audience becomes animated by the familiar song. The marathon of Bollywood dances kicks off.
Taj: Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue, performed at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson on Sunday, drew in a diverse crowd in age and ethnicity.
Those of Indian heritage were engaged and interacted with the performers; for these show-goers the production was an experience that they could sing and jive along with. The storyline and over-the-top acting was more of a means to weave the musical numbers together, not something to observe quietly and be taken seriously. Even the production itself poked fun at the industry’s love of melodrama.
Throughout the show Shankar, the composer, read the story of the famous Bollywood ingénue and her lover’s journey south to escape their superficial world. The exasperated composer repeatedly stressed to his musicians the importance to make the best soundtrack. Out of the talented live musicians the guitarist, Chandan Raina, brought comical relief to the performance. Occasionally he would turn to the audience to make snarky asides about his employer’s mental state.
With every new scene narrated by Shankar the mood of the music changed and a new dance number began.
Bollywood lovers suspended their belief in reality and embraced the plot narrated by Shankar. Their exuberance signaled to those new to the art form that it was okay to participate and enjoy.
Act I’s focus was on modern Bollywood dancing. Elements of hip-hop and Latin movements were incorporated into the choreography. The dancing was dynamic when both the men and women ensembles danced together on stage. When separate, the groups didn’t quite conjure up the same energy and relied heavily on the costumes and strobe lights to impress the crowd.
What the movement lacked, the costuming made up for. Fringe made the dancers’ shimmies echo, billowy silk made limbs infinitely ripple, reflective jewels made sharp hip jolts cut. Costume designer Bipin Tanna created 1,000 costumes and 500 accessories for Taj Express to display India’s multitude of textiles.
Act II opened with the young Bollywood actress and her lover traveling by train into India’s countryside. Their excursion south was a refreshing shift away from the flashy modern form of Bollywood dance found in the city to a more traditional dance form. The lovers encountered village girls twirling with heavy loads on their heads and men with dhols, large double-sided drums. Dance formations were cleaner and more intricate. The effect was dizzying.
As the plot came to a climax, the performers waltzed joyfully in rotating circles making their garments expand out to look like a sea of red and gold. They punched the space above them with silver drumsticks and then swooped down to repeat the action in a low crouch. The happy couple playfully danced among them. It was a magical and joyful experience.
A young girl in the row below put two thumbs up in the air and let out a yelp as the cast took their bows, ecstatic that the show incorporated all her favorite songs. Her mother turned to her and said, “it was delightful!”
That it was.