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A CurtainUp Review
Queens Boulevard

With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

Vijay? Where were you? — Shizuko
I went to get the flower of heaven for you — Vijay
Queens Boulevard
Amir Arison and Michi Barall
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
New York is a Wonderful Town as Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden and Adolph Green told us. Producer David Merrick recalled the bawdy gaudy virtues of 42nd Street; Arthur Schwartz and Ira Gershwin looked in on the swells of Park Avenue in 1947 and Andre de Shield's celebrated uptown with a Harlem Nocturne in 1984. The Winter Garden Theater told the West Side Story for years even if a play Viva Madison Avenue lasted only two performances at the Longacre in 1960. Playwrights and composers have long commemorated the various corners of this center of the universe by paying homage to such landmarks as Miss Liberty, (Up in) Central Park, Greenwich Village (Follies) and Washington Heights (In the Heights comes to Broadway in February).

So while we wait patiently for someone to discover the dramatic potential of the Grand Concourse, let's be open and warmly receptive to Charles Mee's charming music-enhanced embrace of Queens Boulevard. Notwithstanding Mee's previous obsession with the many facets of love that include Big Love, True Love, First Love, Summertime and Wintertime, his apparent infatuation with theater as a toy is as commendable as it is unfettered by convention. With Queens Boulevard, one gets the feeling that Mee prefers to envision a completely theatrical world that resonates with both classical textures and contemporary attitudes, a conceit that he used to stunning effect in the recent production of Iphigenia 2.0, also at the Signature Theater.

Mee has used the Katha-Kali play The Flower of Good Fortune by Kottayan Tampuran (a dramatization of the classical Indian story of Shakuntala) as his inspiration with credit given to Tom Damrauer for dramaturgical assistance. Not knowing the play, I must assume from the story and the action that Mee was enamored by what is essentially a fable with a moral that contends that true love may be compromised by distractions and digressions but never destroyed. The program also notes that the text incorporates selected bits from Homer, James Joyce, Ono No Komachi, Usun Kwon, Valerie Solanus, Dolat H. Doongaji and A.K. Lavangia as well as blogs from the neighborhoods of Queens.

In addition to Mee's inclination to "sample," for his text, he also includes a mixture of amusing musical divertissements. These augment the borough-wide journey of Vijay (played with a winning naiveté by Amir Arison), a young groom of Indian descent, as he goes on a quest soon after their wedding vows to find the flower of good fortune as a gift for his bride of Chinese descent Shizuko (played with a winsome spirit by Michi Barall).

The audience is invited to participate, as either members of the groom's or the bride's family by the wedding DJ (played with the prescribed exuberance by Satya Bhabha). The celebrants of both families and their friends, however, are already mingling and dancing as the audience enters the completely transformed interior of the Peter Norton Space. Jello-O shots are handed out and a photo is taken of the couple in the audience who had been married the longest. One couple admitted to 63 years together.

You would have to be blind not to be impressed by the dazzling and almost dizzying evocation of a compacted shopping arcade on Queens Boulevard, as created by set designer Mimi Lien. The neon signs are ablaze over a cluster of stores that include a barber shop, a nail salon, music store, travel agency, vegetable and flower market.

Although Asian and middle eastern influences punctuate the dances created by Peter Pucci, there is a decided taste for Bollywood in the air as well as karaoke and video streaming. Also embedded is a potpourri of songs from Shoukichi Kina, Anu Malik & Craig Pruess, ABBA and others, as well as traditional Okinawan, Iranian and Irish folk songs to define not only the neighborhood but also various ethnicities of the principal characters. Fourteen performers, in a wash of colorful costumes by Christal Weatherly, play more than thirty-five characters. All are inclined to play their roles with broad but infectious flourishes.

The plot (shades of Homer's The Odyssey), under the watchful eye of director Davis McCallum, progresses episodically as a series of comical diversions and digressions, most of which are inserted for their ability to delight us without being particularly deep or meaningful. Arian Moayed is excellent as Abdi, the friend who initially leads Vijay astray. A trip to the Russian baths allows the male performers to do a bit of naughty towel dancing that for the record is funnier than anything in The Ritz. Shizuko also gets lured out of the house and into a bit of frisky night club hopping by her girl friends.

A favorite moment: Ruth Zhang, as Shizuko's mother, singing "Dancing Queen" in full throttle coloratura. Emilie Donahoe is seductive as Colleen, Vijay's old flame and Debargo Sanyal, earns laughs as a push cart entrepreneur whose business talents includes palmistry, massage, dentistry and a knack for fast talk. Speaking of talk, the text is deployed with a pretentiousness that presumes that no one is going to take this facetiously whimsical excursion to Queen Boulevard seriously. And that is as it should be.

Additional Thoughts: Maybe It Should Be Called Roosevelt Avenue

The Signature Theater's always informative newletter (be sure to pick one up in the lobby) has an enlightening and well illustrated article about playwright Mee's and director Davis McCallum's journeys to various Queens neighborhoods. It is these journeys that led to turning the Signature stage, as well as its walls and entryway, into a delightful spectacle. McCallum notes that he assumes that, given the mythical, dreamllike style of the play, audiences won't expect logical and literal consistency in how Queens is depicted.

As someone who appreciates the pleasures of Queens enough to live there, I'm glad that our colorful, multi-cultural borough has engaged Mr. Mee's imagination. It's certainly nice to have Queens associated with Homer rather than (as has too often been the case) with TV sitcom's favorite bigot, Archie Bunker.

Still, just to set the record straight for audiences who, like my New Jersey colleague Simon Saltzman, have not ventured into Queens, permit me to put the thoroughfare for which this play is named into a more geographically accurate context. Most of the neighborhoods Mimi Lin has so cleverly combined into her set are not on Queens Boulevard but along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and Main Street in Flushing.

Forest Hills Station Plaza
Forest Hills Station Plaza (Photo: Elyse Sommer)
And so, picture Queens Boulevard as a giant tree that, in keeping with Mr. Mee's fantastical bent, is fantastically long, stretching from Sunnyside to Jamaica, and think of these neighborhoods as branches of that tree that you don't really see if you drive up Queens Boulevard. My own branch of that tree, the neighborhood known as Forest Hills, is one of the shortest branches. And while this quiet retreat in the midst of Queens has lots of trendy stores and restaurants rather than bodegas, it was originally intended for people of all incomes. While that didn't happen right away, it did become a haven for immigrants and in the past twenty years, residents have been ever more diverse.

Just a block off Queens Boulevard and Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, is an architectural landmark known as Station Plaza. It's dominated by what was once the Forest Hills Inn (it's now a coop apartment house) where many people stayed when the tennis matches were still held at the nearby and still existing and active Forest Hills Tennis Club. The Inn Apartments, the Long Island Railroad station and the little Park Square with its stone benches typify the architecture of this tree-lined Queens enclave.
Forest Hills Station Plaza
Forest Hills Station Plaza The Station Square is a gateway to street after street of houses that share the same overall look and have enough leafy trees to make long trips to view Fall foliage unnecessary.
(Photo: Elyse Sommer)
Queens Boulevard
By Charles Mee
Directed by Davis McCallum
Cast: Amir Arison, Michi Barall, Satya Bhabha, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Buell, Demosthenes Chrysan, Geeta Citygirl, Emily Donahoe, William Jackson Harper, Jodi Lin, Arian Moayed, Debargo Sanyal, John Norman Schneider, Ruth Zhang.
Music Supervision and Arrangements: Michael Friedman
Music Director: Matt Castel
Set Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Christal Weatherly
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Video Design: Joseph Spirito
Choreography: Peter Pucci
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes (no intermission)
From 11/06/07 to 12/30/07; opening 12/03/07. The Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street. (212) 212/244/7329 or
Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. Additional performances Sunday 12/09/07 and 12/30/07 at 7 PM.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on11/28/07 press performance
©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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