It’s a good idea, one with the bright and elegant simplicity that marks out all the notions that seem blindingly obvious in hindsight. Phizzical’s 50th production, a collaboration with Belgrade Theatre and New Wolsley Theatre, takes the now-familiar structure of the jukebox musical and projects it onto the Technicolor widescreen of Bollywood. Brilliant though the inspiration is, the execution at times falls somewhat short of its potential.

The most obvious touchstone for writer/director Samir Bhamma is the arguable apotheosis of the genre, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is Mamma Mia! Like the production owing thanks to the music of Andersson and Ulvaeus, Bombay Superstar is spun into play by a question of paternity, in this case that of Nisha Aaliya’s fiercely-determined Laila, half-orphaned in what is effectively a pre-credits sequence, and flung forth to Bombay in search of her fugitive father. As fortune would have it, her appa, silkily-voiced Chirag Rao’s silver fox, Din Dayal, is an important Bollywood figure, the mirrorball around which the other characters dance.

Bombay Superstar at The Lowry theatre. Credit: The Lowry

The disco floor is very much the appropriate metaphor for the twists and turns of the plot, since it is in the song and dance numbers, choreographed by Shruti and Roah Shah, that the production makes the most sense. The best of these, in particular, Biddu’s Disco Deewane, propelled by clipped guitars not a subcontinent away from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, and Hari Om Hari, like a lost Eurovision entry by Boney M, have a propulsive energy light years away from the narrative’s less compelling arc. Certainly, it is when released from the leg-irons of the story to soar into these three minute epiphanies that the cast seem most at their ease, whether giving full voice themselves, like Pia Sutaria’s affectingly resonant Mala, or lip-synching to Rao or Amar, shrouded offstage.

Whilst the best of the songs transcend the lack of the prior familiarity that is at least part of the jukebox musical’s appeal, it’s conceivable that the plot might reveal greater rewards to those whose affection for the conventions of  Bollywood itself are long-standing. From such a perspective, perhaps, the piece’s metafictional elements, such as the moment when Rav Moore’s would-be wild card, Sikandar, announces “our story begins” would serrate more bitingly.

In the absence of such wry fondness, the narrative’s mechanics seem contrived without the saving grace of satirical sharpness. Hamstrung between archness and sincerity, neither entirely one thing nor the other, its characters both lightly drawn and overstated, it’s hard to invest emotionally in anything or anyone, in spite of the drama that Amar’s newshound (functioning as Greek chorus) insists is unfolding before us.

The effect is one of a tentative first draft, when what might be more effective is something closer to the full-throated boldness of the black-glittered sardonicism of 2001’s film adaptation of Josie And The Pussycats. Indeed, there’s more than a touch of that film’s Alan Cummings and his patented epicene foppishness in Robby Khela’s Vicky, for all that the effect is dulled in a flurry of exposition and dramatic exits. It’s a shame that none of the female roles foster a performance to rival the brittle commitment that Parker Posey brought to The Pussycats’ Fiona.

Bombay Superstar at The Lowry theatre. Credit: The Lowry

Going out with a bang, Superstar ends, in the manner now obligatory for children’s animation, to the sound of disco strings and the glitter of golden lights, enabling the entire ensemble, the relentlessly upbeat and quick-changing chorus included, to take bows that have been earned above all on the dancefloor.

It’s a good idea, but with a little honing of the story’s focus, and a corresponding consistency of tone, it could yet be a great one. The song, it seems, is not over yet.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image credit: The Lowry

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Bombay Superstar is showing at The Lowry theatre until November 12, 2022. Tickets are still available, click here to see show times and prices. 

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