Gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur died at 25, a few days after a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, where his crew from Death Row Records tangled with members of the Crips gang. Officially, the murder is unsolved, but a long investigation by the Los Angeles Times pointed the trigger finger at gang warfare. Shakur left an impressive catalog of words and music about life in prison, on the street and in the relative sanctuary of the recording studio, where the F-word and the N-word and plenty of other raw, uncensored, blistering words were turned into digital zeros and ones and launched into the world. (He also had a budding film career that included the 1992 Juice.)
Holler If Ya Hear Me, taken from a definitive 2Pac anthem, is the title of the show that opened last night at the Palace Theatre — yes, the Palace that Judy Garland played. It’s not a bio-musical; instead, Shakur’s scorching, sometimes mournful words and driving music are set in a book by Todd Kreidler that tells a more generic tale: Of life for the hopeless young and armed restless on the mean streets of an unnamed city that reads a lot like Detroit.
There is some very good news in the Broadway debut of Saul Williams, a gifted rapper himself, as the Shakur character here called John. He makes his entrance descending from the flies in a prison cell: Teardrops and closed caskets, the three-strikes law is drastic, he raps, And certain death for us ghetto bastards. What can we do when we’re arrested, but open fire — life in the pen ain’t for me, cause I’d rather die. … The only time they notice a nigger is when he’s clutching on a four-five…
Lean and kinetic, with scattershot dreads and a feral expression, Williams is rivetingly charismatic, especially in the title number that closes Act I, a call to arms that might make some in the audience think of the callow college boys ready to risk all in Les Miserables and comes across with sustained high energy.
Getting to that point in Holler takes some doing, however. For all the thumping bass and acrobatic dancing (the exceptional choreography is by Wayne Cilento), Holler feels like a 45 RPM musical playing at 33 1/3, to use an analog analogy. It’s slow to get going, and — despite the barrage of what is surely the nastiest language since David Mamet left town — surprisingly enervating.
Chalk this up to the earnestness of Kreidler’s book, which throws a little bit of West Side Story xenophobia and romantic subplot, a little bit of Miss Saigon‘s celebration of American vulgarity and a perhaps to-be-expected amount of caution into the mix. Certainly Shakur’s story, not to say the violence-riddled history of rap, is assiduously sanitized. Nevertheless the whole cast is great, especially Ben Thompson as a white mechanic who gives John a chance at redemption (though I’m not sure what he’s doing strumming a Martin guitar, given the setting) and Saycon Sengbloh as the girl who got away (but wants to come back).
Staged with too much restraint by Kenny Leon (who so brilliantly directed the Tony-winning revival of A Raisin In The Sun that just ended its Broadway run), the show may disappoint rap fans and bewilder Broadway musical regulars. That’s too bad, because it’s better than merely well-meaning. Holler if Ya Hear Me brings Broadway into the 1990s. Believe it or not, that’s progress.