Most Americans may have never heard of Bhangra, the energetic and expressive form of Indian folk dance and music that has swept the country over the past 30 years. But the creators of a new Bhangra-centric musical, now playing at La Jolla Playhouse, hope that’s about to change.
Winner of the Richard Rodgers Award, “Bhangin’ It” is an intoxicating new musical set in the deliriously high stakes world of intercollegiate competitive bhangra: a traditional Punjabi folk dance morphed into a good ol' American dance-off. Mary, a biracial college student, thinks she's got all the right moves on the Bengal Tigers bhangra team…until she gets kicked off it for not being "Indian enough." Undaunted, she and her roommate Sunita put together a team whose only criteria for joining is a desire to dance. Can this eclectic, diverse, ragtag group stand a chance against the slick bhangra pros? Brash, intoxicating, and joyous, Bhangin' It is a celebration of the traditions we inherit from yesterday and those we create for tomorrow.
Bhangra (pronounced “BAHN-gruh”) originated in the Punjab region of Northern India and Pakistan and was popularized and modernized in Bollywood films. In recent years, it has been transformed with the influence of hip-hop and reggae music forms. In the early 1990s, students at a handful of U.S. universities on the East Coast with large South Asian populations began forming Bhangra teams to build community and perform at cultural events.
Arianna “Ari” Afsar, a singer, composer and theater artist who grew up in San Diego, is in the lead role of Mary, an American of Southeast Asian descent who competes at the collegiate level in Indian Bhangra dance contests. The musical is written by former San Diegan Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, Sam Wilmott and Deep Singh, running through April 17 at the Playhouse.
Ms. Afsar’s father is from Bangladesh and her mother is of German origin. She placed in the top 36 singers in the eighth season of Fox’s “American Idol” series and was also the winner of the 2010 Miss California pageant. In 2016, she originated the role of Eliza in the Chicago production of the musical “Hamilton.” Now, she’s composing the score for a pop rock musical titled "We Won't Sleep," with a book by playwright Lauren Gunderson.
Also featured in the musical are Aryaan Arora as Mohan, Bilaal Avaz as Amit; Jesse Bhamrah as Gobind, Brandon Contreras as Billy, Laura Dadap as Constance, Henry Walter Greenberg as Noah, San Diego actor Jason Heil as Wallace, Terrance Johnson as Jake, Jaya Joshi as Sunita, Madison McBride as Lily, Anu Mysore as Shetal, Amey Natu as Big Bob, Alka Nayyar as Rekha, Zain Patel as Varun, Devi Peot as New Mary, Vinithra Raj as Preeti, Ramita Ravi as Shilpa, along with Nikki Mirza, Gerry Tonella and Levin Valayil as swings.
The piece is directed by Stafford Arima (Broadway’s Allegiance), with choreography by Rujuta Vaidya (Slumdog Millionaire Academy Awards performance) and musical staging by Lisa Shriver (Playhouse/Broadway’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”), along with Bhangra specialist Anushka Pushpala (Artistic Director of Bhangra Empire). With book by Mike Lew (Playhouse’s “Tiger Style!”) and Rehana Lew Mirza (Playhouse’s DNA Series’ “Child of Colonialism”), music and lyrics by Sam Willmott (“Yo, Vikings!”), and additional music by Grammy Award nominee Deep Singh, “Bhangin’ It” is about a young American woman who finds her identity cannot be defined by checking a box, so she sets off on a quest to dance to her own beat.
The full creative team includes former Playhouse Artist-in-Residence and Tony Award nominee Robert Brill (Playhouse's SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, The Wiz and others), Scenic Designer; Tony Award winner Linda Cho (Playhouse's Wild Goose Dreams, The Orphan of Zhao), Costume Designer; Amith Chandrashaker, Lighting Designer; Jonathan Deans, Sound Designer; David Bengali, Projection Designer; Natasha Sinha, Dramaturg; Calleri/Jensen/Davis and Jacole Kitchen, Casting; Julianne Menassian, Stage Manager.
"It's a blend of sort of classic Western musical theater and Indian, and sort of bhangra sound to it and the sound of it feels like it's our hive brain," says co-author Mike Lew. "All of our influences kind of poured together. And yet I think it sounds very coherent."
Rehana Lew Mirza, who co-wrote the book for “Bhangin’ It” with her husband, Mike Lew, said she became a Bhangra “super fan” in her early college years, offering to teach writing classes at colleges around the country in exchange for free tickets to their Bhangra festivals. In her 20s, she wrote a screenplay about Bhangra but then tucked it away in a drawer to focus on playwriting.
In 2005, she met Lew, a La Jolla native, at the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a New York development space for Asian American playwrights. Lew is Chinese American and Lew Mirza is half Pakistani, half Filipino. She introduced Lew to the world of Bhangra on their earliest dates, they workshopped her Bhangra play script together and when they married in April 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, there was Bhangra dancing at their wedding.
The script took a big leap forward in April 2013 when the couple were teamed with composer Wilmott in the “24 Hour Musicals” competition in Manhattan. The trio was tasked with writing a one-act musical in 24 hours, which they called “The Shotgun Wedding.” Somewhere during the wee hours of that night, the subject of the couple’s long-shelved Bhangra play came up and Wilmott was intrigued to read it.
“It was so obvious to me that it was a musical,” Wilmott said. “The music and dancing is baked into the world of it. There was such potential for multiculturalism in the score. In so many ways it was modeled after the musicals I grew up loving, but it spoke to what it means to be somebody living in America today and grappling with the American experience and all of its complexities.”
In the play, Mary is a young woman who, not unlike playwright Lew Mizra, is mixed race. Director Arima, who is mixed race and multinational, immediately connected with Mary’s use of dance as an expression of herself, her past, and her family. Bringing all of those elements together is another kind of mash-up in the production.
The music in the show has an effervescence to it, with combined elements of musical theater meshed with classic Indian sounds in the score. And there's a sense of inclusion that makes it feel accessible like you are being invited to participate. That’s one of the biggest messages of “Bhangin’ It,” a sense of inclusivity on multiple levels.
“Bhangin’ It!” A New Musical, Running March 20 to April 17. Showtimes, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Now playing at Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. Tickets: $25 to $87; COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 48 hours of performance, along with proof of ID. Masks required for all indoors. Phone: (858) 550-1010; Online: lajollaplayhouse.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report