Review Roundup: HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME, written by Todd Kreidler and directed by Kenny Leon, opens tonight, June 19, at the Palace Theatre.
HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME stars award-winning slam poet, actor, singer, musician Saul Williams (Slam) as John, Christopher Jackson (After Midnight) as Vertus, Saycon Sengbloh (Motown The Musical, Fela!) as Corinne, Ben Thompson (Matilda) as Griffy, John Earl Jelks (Radio Golf - Tony nomination) as Street Preacher, Joshua Boone (Brownsville Song [b side for Tray] at Actors Theatre of Louisville) as Darius, Dyllon Burnside ("Prison Break") as Anthony and Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam, Caroline or Change, Play On!) as Mrs. Weston.
Holler If Ya Hear Me, the world inside Tupac Shakur's music and lyrics, blazes to life in a non-biographical story about friendship, family, revenge, change and hope. Through the poetry of one of the 20th century's most influential and culturally prominent voices, we are given a window into realities of the streets still relevant today.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: Slam poet Saul Williams is a galvanizing presence in his Broadway debut, playing a central role that can be taken as the author's voice. As John, he opens the evening in a prison cell, soon to be released after six years. "My Block" offers his view of the violent and oppressive world he's returning to ("Now shit's constantly hot on my block / It never fails to be gunshots / Can't explain a mother's pain when her son drops.") but John is determined to just get a job and stay out of trouble.
Charles Isherwood, The 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.
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...Unlike other jukebox musicals, the songs in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are rarely ever delivered in the style of the original artist. Instead, the show's creators test their elasticity by turning them into duets or group songs -- and one even gets a folky acoustic guitar treatment. The danger is that the urgent, free verse style of Shakur's very personal songs gets diffused, lightened and flattened...Either way, rap is firmly on Broadway, and that's something to celebrate.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: John Singleton can relax. Any danger of his long-in-development Tupac Shakurbiopic being beaten to the punch by Holler If Ya Hear Me is quickly dispelled by the deflating experience of this well-intentioned but toothless Broadway rap musical. The show is not a biographical drama but a story of friendship and family, gun violence, racism and redemption in an inner-city black neighborhood, inspired by Shakur's lyrics and poetry. However, therein lies the problem. 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.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Here's the big question that should be on the minds of the producers of "Holler If Ya Hear Me": Now that we've built it, will they come? The quick answer: Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the marketing campaign. That's the gamble investors took on this musical treatment of works left behind by Tupac Shakur, the now-sainted rap artist who died at the age of 25 in a 1996 drive-by shooting. 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?
Elysa Gardner, USA Today: So let's first praise Holler If Ya Hear Me (*** out of four stars) for what it's doing -- acknowledging that Broadway audiences are growing more diverse, and encouraging that growth -- and, just as important, what it isn't doing: milking nostalgia...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. Though there are sobering twists -- and contrived ones -- the overall effect is uplifting. By celebrating its subject's creativity rather than exploiting his legend, Holler sets a fundamentally positive example for a problematic form.
Glenn Gamboa, Newsday: It's fitting that the ambitions behind "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are as outsized as the artist who inspired it -- rapper, poet and actor Tupac Shakur...And it's to Leon's credit that "Holler," a simple story of how the people on a current-day block of an unnamed Midwestern industrial town deal with a tragedy, turns out as well as it does...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. In the end, "Holler" leaves you feeling more exhausted than inspired.
David Cote, Time Out NY: While there have been rap-rich musicals (In the Heights), the fusion of hip-hop and razzle-dazzle has been tricky at best, tacky at worst. The latest attempt is Holler if Ya Hear Me, a ghetto-not-so-fabulous repurposing of songs by Tupac Shakur (1971-96) for a ramshackle morality tale about revenge and second chances. Although songwriting purists will shrink and wince at Shakur's freewheeling meter and propensity to rhyme slant, the real crime against craft is Todd Kreidler's weak book...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.
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: It's a safe bet that a swath of theatergoers has steered clear of hip-hop -- at least, the kind not scripted by "In the Heights" composer Lin-Manuel Miranda -- because it's gritty, racy and has a perception problem in some quarters. If that's you, then "Holler If Ya Hear Me," the Broadway musical "inspired by" the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, is a chance to correct a grave omission. If, however, you've been on the Tupac train all along, then "Holler,"...is a banner opportunity to stand in awe of a rich canon that, it's difficult to grasp, originated with a man who died at only 25. But the two-dozen songs lushly presented...are threaded together by a fictional story so tired, and so often told, that you can't help but walk away feeling that an opportunity has been missed.
Matt Windman, AM New York: One would think, or at least sincerely hope, that "Holler If Ya Hear Me," the new musical incorporating songs and poems by the late rapper and hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur...would turn out to be an innovative, socially conscious work... So it's extremely disheartening to report that "Holler If Ya Hear Me" is a total mess and misfire. Perhaps it needed more time for development...Rather than focus on Shakur's short and tumultuous life, which would have provided some structure, "Holler If Ya Hear Me" integrates -- or at least attempts to integrate -- Tupac's songs into an aimless and confusing tale of gang violence in a generic urban landscape that is full of undeveloped characters. In other words, it's a really poor imitation of "West Side Story."
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: "Holler If Ya Hear Me," Broadway's first rap jukebox musical, brings highs and lows too. The production is vibrant, raw and rousing, but it shoots itself in the foot with predictability and unintelligibility...Leon...guides a fluid, gritty and graceful production. Wayne Cilento's movement and choreography energize everything...The main problem -- and it's a big one -- is clarity: Muddy diction and unsure sound mix become a wrecking ball to Shakur's gloriously constructed rhymes. "Matilda" brought the same what-are-they-saying woes, but rap is all about the words.
Robert Hofler, The Wrap: As with the nearby "Rocky," the best thing about "Holler" is the new seating configuration, which is startlingly effective in giving us a predatory hawk's eye view of the bleak street scene below. Otherwise, this show keeps falling prey to almost every cliché that has made the jukebox musical such a maligned genre in the theater. It's not just that Todd Kreidler's book can't match the power of Shakur's stark and bracing poetry. Kreidler keeps subverting those lyrics with a storyline that makes a contradictory mess of its principal characters. "Holler" is not a travesty like the super-successful "Mamma Mia!," where only the first line of every Abba song refers to the action at hand and the rest of the lyrics go on their merry, aimless way. But all too often, Shakur's lyrics only comment on the emotional content of the characters' lives. As with most jukebox musicals, the lyrics rarely further the action. Which leaves Kreidler's book with way too much explaining to do.
Alexis Soloski, Guardian: Pour one out for Holler if Ya Hear Me, the dead-on-arrival Broadway jukebox musical inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur. As Tupac's life rights were unavailable, director Kenny Leon (a recent Tony winner for the Raisin in the Sun revival) and playwright Todd Kriedler have fitted a dozen and a half of his visceral tracks to a profoundly un-engaging story.
Jesse Green, Vulture: The show's ambition to remake the theater couldn't be more literal: The Palace has been converted from a traditional Broadway house into something more like a stadium, with its orchestra drastically foreshortened and steeply raked to meet the balcony after just nine rows. (Some 600 seats were eliminated in the process.) The former rear orchestra section is now given over to a few uncaptioned exhibits on loan from the National Museum of Hip-Hop, including a baby-blue tracksuit apparently worn by someone, and a pair of Timberland boots customized with portraits of Mandela and Obama. If the latter retrofit feels dinky and confusing, the bigger one, much mocked in theater chat rooms in anticipation, actually succeeds, all but hurling the audience into the action.
Robert Feldberg, Bergen Record: While the language might be rough, the material chosen for "Holler" is almost unrelentingly on the side of the angels. It decries violence and lawlessness, ill treatment of women, discrimination and grinding poverty, and their collective destructive impact on the lives of many African-Americans. With the same messages repeated, and enacted by the sketchy characters in fairly generic scenes, the show has a hard time moving forward.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus