Review Roundup: ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new musical inspired by the music of the late rap artist Tupac Shakur, opened at the Palace Theatre on June 19. Written by Todd Kreidler, the show is not based on Shakur’s life but uses his work to tell the moving story of two friends in an economically stricken Midwestern inner city. Songs include Shakur’s hits “Dear Mama,” “Me Against the World,” “California Love,” “Unconditional Love,” written for MC Hammer, but later featured on Shakur’s posthumous greatest hits album, and the title song.

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) directs and Wayne Cilento (Wicked) serves as choreographer. Daryl Waters (The Color Purple) is musical supervisor.

The critics were divided on the rap musical, with most acknowledging the energetic direction by Leon and the dynamic performances by the cast. But many criticized Kreidler’s book as thin and clichéd (Marilyn Stasio of Variety went so far as to call it “clunky”). There was also carping about the sound design rendering Shakur’s lyrics unintelligible, a serious flaw in a show celebrating the works of a legendary urban poet. Saul Williams’ lead performance as the ex-con trying to go straight was universally praised. Glenn Gamboa of Newsday said he puts many of today’s rappers to shame and “manages to act while rapping so distinctly that the rhymes can still can be understood by the audience.” Many reviewers also expressed admiration for the attempt to bring a new form to the Broadway musical. Here are excerpts from the major critics.

 

The cast of 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Charles Isherwood, New York Times
“The beats are sweet, and the words often have an electric charge in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new Broadway musical inspired by the lyrics of the popular but troubled rapper Tupac Shakur, who was shot and killed at 25 in Las Vegas in 1996. Unfortunately, much else about this ambitious show, which opened on Thursday at the Palace Theater, feels heartfelt but heavy-handed, as it punches home its message with a relentlessness that may soon leave you numb to the tragic story it’s trying to tell.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“The production is vibrant, raw and rousing, but it self-sabotages with predictability and unintelligibility.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“Rap on Broadway? Purists, relax—Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur musical that opened Thursday night, is endearingly traditional. Yes, there’s gangsta anger and lots of profanity, but it’s packaged in skillful, old-school showbiz. No wonder, since an old hand, Tony winner Kenny Leon (“Fences,” “A Raisin in the Sun”), is at the helm.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“The high-energy, deeply felt but ultimately overwrought production opened Thursday in a blaze of N-words at the Palace Theatre, proving both that rap deserves its moment to shine on a Broadway stage and that some 20 Shakur songs can somehow survive the transformation—barely.”

David Cote, Time Out New York
“Director Kenny Leon has a surer hand with straight plays (such as his solid revival of A Raisin in the Sun), and the enterprise deserves respect for bringing Shakur’s verbal pyrotechnics and political rage before a new audience. But Holler is a shapeless mix of melodrama, music video and half-grasped musical clichés. I honestly wish there were more to shout about.”

Richard Zoglin, Time
“One could imagine a better Tupac Shakur musical—one, say, that would tell the story of Tupac’s own fascinating, contradictory life….But Holler If Ya Here Me is a bold effort to open up Broadway to a new musical idiom, without diluting it or reducing it to a cartoon. The show hollers, and you simply have to listen.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“Despite a clunky book, this show is on fire. But it’s going to be a hard sell with traditional auds, and can the real fans spring for Broadway ticket prices?”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
“The music is often powerful and the performers uniformly capable, but the songs are a poor fit for narrative presentation, at least in writer Todd Kreidler’s cut-and-paste of cliched situations and stock characters.”

Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“Under Kenny Leon’s vigorous, sensitive direction, the principal actors—among them a coolly charismatic Christopher Jackson and a typically warm, fierce Tonya Pinkins—are convincing and sympathetic, and Waters and choreographer Wayne Cilento mine the robust grooves and soulful nuances in Shakur’s material in exhilarating production numbers.”

Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
Holler If Ya Hear Me has flashes of brilliance, especially in its celebrations…. However, the story often feels like it’s jumping through hoops to move from one stellar performance from the cast to the next. It becomes a roller coaster of emotions for those on the stage, but they’re moving so fast that the audience doesn’t really get a chance to connect to them.”

Jesse Green, New York Magazine
“Tupac’s words are inherently strong, if you get over your distaste for eccentric stresses and rhymes so slant they’re almost perpendicular. As substitutes for songs in a dramatic context, though, they’re hit-or-miss.”

Steve Suskind, Huffington Post
“Holler is West Side Story without the Shakespeare, and without the romantic subplot. The new show even seems to recycle left-over street-scenery from the West Side revival that recently played the Palace. The creators of Holler also clearly channel Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, with none of the heights.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“There is virtually no scenery, just a bare stage and a few projections. More often than not, the dense lyrics cannot be understood, thus defeating the purpose of a show meant to celebrate Shakur’s voice. The 22-member cast, which will alternatively spring into ferocity or heartfelt lament, works hard but cannot rescue the show.”

 

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