Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new musical inspired by the lyrics of the late rap artist Tupac Shakur, is now playing at the Palace Theatre. Instead of employing Shakur’s work to tell his own story, book-writer Todd Kriedler uses the songs for a fictional story of set “now” and “on my block in a Midwestern industrial city.” John, an aspiring poet and artist, has just been released from prison and wants to concentrate on his steady job at a garage. But after his friend Benny is killed in a shooting and Benny’s brother Vertus is threatened by a dangerous rival gang, John is drawn back into his criminal past.
The cast includes award-winning slam poet, actor, singer, musician Saul Williams (Slam), Christopher Jackson (After Midnight), Saycon Sengbloh (Motown The Musical, Fela!), Ben Thompson (Matilda), Obie winner John Earl Jelks (Fetch Clay, Make Man), Joshua Boone (Brownsville Song [b side for Tray] at Actors Theatre of Louisville), Dyllon Burnside (Prison Break) and Tony winner Tonya Pinkins (Jelly’s Last Jam, Caroline or Change, Play On!). Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington), directs. Shakur’s mother, Afeni, is one of the producers. Tony winner Wayne Cilento (Wicked) serves as choreographer. Daryl Waters (The Color Purple) is musical supervisor. Here are five reasons to see Holler If Ya Hear Me.
A new sound on Broadway
Holler breaks new ground on Broadway with a score almost entirely using the rap idiom. Daryl Waters who handled the musical supervision, orchestrations and arrangements skillfully mold Shakur’s work into a theatrical setting. “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up” becomes a feisty battle of the sexes, “Hail Mary” is a dark anthem of anger and frustration and “California Love” is an explosive celebration of the characters’ dream state.
The cast is dynamic
Saul Williams captures John’s intensity and his musical performances of Shakur’s bombastic lyrics are like volcanic eruptions. Tonya Pinkins will break your heart as the supportive mother and John Earl Jelks is infinitely moving as a brain-damaged street preacher. Saycon Sengbloh finds depth in the long-suffering girlfriend part and gives a lovely rendition of Shakur’s hit “Unconditional Love” with Williams. Christopher Jackson, Ben Thompson, Joshua Boone and Dyllon Burnside also provide sparks.
An intimate experience
The spacious Palace Theater has been reconfigured stadium style to create a more intimate environment. The unused space has been converted into a museum of rap with chalkboards for audience members to write their dreams and reactions to the show.
The staging sizzles
The fluid direction and electric choreography by Tony winners Kenny Leon and Wayne Cilento, respectively, keep the action moving at a lightning pace.
Design adds dimension
Mike Baldassari’s lighting and Zachary Borovay’s projections add to the atmosphere by shifting between the drab reality of the street and the fantasy world of John’s poems and drawings.