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A CurtainUp Review
Bunty Berman Presents
By Elyse Sommer
It's not a great musical but it is great fun. The choreography is peppy; the songs, tuneful.
The book is amusingly stuffed with every cliche ever cranked out by the Hollywood B-Movie mill: A boss who's bound to finally heed his adoring secretary's wistful "Can You See Me?". . .an aging diva desperate to hold onto her star power (Mr. Din's diva is a male needing a wig and corset to hide his bald spot and flabby middle). . . slick gangsters to add to the hero's financial problems. . .and a Judy and Mickey romance to insure a happy ending for the young as well as the older characters
The foundation to accommodate the songs and dances and all those cliche elements is the downward spiral of Bunty Berman's movie studio. After years of hit upon hit movie, audiences are no longer smitten with the studio's super star, Raj Dhawan (Sorab Wadia), who one critic now calls "a fat, balding, bumbling, pantomime of an aged lover." Though Bunty, and Nizwar (Sevan Greene), his chief assistant and writer, join in with Raj's "I've Still Got It," they know the good old days of sure-fire box office success are over unless the fading star problem and its attendant financial crisis are resolved.
Bunty's attitude towards his employees is what makes Bunty Berman Presents a touching as well as an amusing romp. And so, while the show is a send-up of both the American and Indian dream factories, it's an affectionate and unapologetically sentimental one.
Bunty Berman may be cranking out films of less than high art quality, but he's different from the ruthless moguls of the Hollywood studio days. To him his employees are family— and that's especially true of his aging star. This is musicalized with a charming duet, "Old Chums." What's more, the sense of affection and loyalty is a two-way street so that Raj, while no longer the dashing hero his fans demand ("Everybody Loves the Hero"), heroically acts in the interests of his "old chum" and the studio.
Naturally, things have to go haywire before Raj's heroism can save the studio, make Bunty really see the devoted Dolly (Gayton Scott), for teaboy Saleem's talents to be acknowledged and his love for Shambervi (Lipica Shah, his hometown girlfriend and now the company ingenue, reciprocated. That means a Faustian deal with Shankar Daas (Alok Tewari) a powerful gangster. I won't spoil things with more details how all this plays out.
For Ayub Khan-Din, Bunty Berman Presents is a double debut. Not that he's a novice playwright or thespian. Besides the previously mentioned Rafta Rafta he penned East is East , the New York production of which was also directed by Scott Elliott and designed by Derek McLane. But Bunty Berman Presents is Din's first musical. He not only wrote the book and lyrics but also collaborated with Paul Bogaev on the score. Since his stage and screen credits have not included a musical his also taking on the title character thus marks an unintended additional debut. It was a case of putting the show must go on mantra into action when Erick Avari, the initially cast Bunty, incurred an injury during rehearsals that made him unable to go on.
Mr. Din may not have drop-dead vocals, but he has the acting chops and stage presence to make his musical's central character an appealing and convincing presence. Since he wrote the words he speaks and sings it's not surprising that there's no going up on his lines. And given director Elliott's history of bringing out the best in his actors, neither is it surprising that the rest of the Bunty Berman team, whether key characters or part of the lively ensemble, turn in vivid and zestful performances.
Much credit for the show's success belongs to the creative team. Derek McLane's inventiveness uses the basic movie studio set to shift to the production numbers as well as to Bunty's office and the gangster's night club. The sense of the story playing out on much more than a single set is greatly abetted by Wendall K. Harrington's terrific projections. An extra round of applause is also due to William Ivey Long for his spiffy costumes, David Lander for his lighting and the six unseen musicians.
To conclude, with a paraphrase of a comment made in my review of Rafta, Rafta: You definitely do not have to be Indian to have a rip-roaring good time at Bunty Berman Presents.