It is set in present-day rural Afghanistan. Several years earlier, Paiman as a child was sold by his father to the well to do Jahandar. The two have an intense emotional and physical involvement that must soon cease, as Paiman is soon to marry because he is approaching manhood. Feda, Zemar, the dancing boy of Zemar, Jahandar’s droll, and mean cousin, is also aging out. Paiman and Feda fall in love and that instigates several conflicts.
This scenario works best during the show’s stylized sequences that have powerful imagery. There are several portions that strikingly take place behind a tent where the action is seen as shadows. There’s also The Unknown Man, who is a roaming narrator figure.
Nejla Yatkin’s choreography is entrancing. Director Tony Speciale’s staging solidly keeps the numerous presentational and narrative elements together with sustained visual polish. The fight direction of Dan Renkin is gripping during the many physical battles that are on display. It all falters when it reverts to a being a traditional musical.
Charlie Sohne’s earnest book has an abundance of stiff dialogue, repetitiveness, and a drawn out, extraneous subplot involving political intrigue at a U.S. power station. The extended Thelma and Louise-style conclusion gets overly solemn and preachy. However, it does well presenting the sociological facts of the situation.
When composer Tim Rosser’s music is in an exotic mode it’s highly effective, but it often has a generic pop sound. Mr. Sohne’s lyrics are variable. There are, though, a number of accomplished songs.
The show’s arresting aspects clash with the uneven book and score, and at two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission, The Boy Who Danced On Air is periodically dull.
Vladimir Nabokov’s nymphet in his monumental novel Lolita is 12 years old. To make this more palatable but true to the spirit of the original work, director Stanley Kubrick cast the 15-ear-old actress Sue Lyon as the title character in his 1962 film adaptation.
Here we get two youthful, attractive and talented performers who are clearly grown men in their 20’s, and not teenagers. Troy Iwata as Paiman, and Nikhil Saboo as Feda are both very good. This suspension of disbelief would be more possible in an abstract performance piece, but The Boy Who Danced On Air is a full-length, conventional musical, and so this casting is at odds with real life. Yes, the title roles of Romeo and Juliet are not often played by actual teenagers, but it’s a masterpiece of dramatic literature that lends itself to creative interpretation, but this show is decidedly not.
Jonathan Raviv is appropriately fiery and passionate, conveying Jahandar’s inner conflict. Combining delightful comic relief with brutality, Osh Ghanimah is marvelously wry as Zemar. With engaging serenity, Deven Kolluri is quite appealing as The Unknown Man.
Christopher Swader and Justin Swader’s scenic design inventively transforms the small theater into an authentic Afghan environment with Persian carpets, sections of plaster walls and vintage lanterns and strands of colored lights that are strung from the ceiling of the auditorium.
Wen-Ling Liao’s atmospheric and vibrant lighting design crisply complements everything. Justin Graziani’s rich sound design perfectly realizes the score and conjures the aural texture of the region.
The plentiful array of indigenous garments and colorfully flowing dancing outfits are the inspired work of costume designer Andrea Lauer.
The show is inspired by the 2010, PBS Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. This film documents the paradoxical subculture of poverty stricken male adolescents being impressed into sexual relationships with wealthy, married men. These involvements conflict with Islamic beliefs against homosexuality, yet it is an age-old tradition that persists.
Boys in the age range of 12 years old are trained to dance for entertainment while wearing feminine costumes. They usually have a master but are also shared with other men. By 18 years of age, they’re deemed too old to continue, and they generally have a bleak future. The rationale behind this phenomenon is that Islamic women are sheltered on many levels, and young boys replace them for sexual gratification.
Successfully dramatizing such unpleasant subject matter is challenging. The Boy Who Danced On Air is billed as a fable, and those aesthetic qualities are imaginatively rendered. As an integrated musical, it stumbles in its form, and in presenting reality.
The Boy Who Danced On Air (through June 11,2017)
Abingdon Theatre Company
June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.abingdontheatre.org
Running time: two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission