The sunshine. The palm trees. The dashing leading men. The lissome starlets. The spangles. The elephants? As you may have guessed, Ayub Khan Din’s new musical Bunty Berman Presents …, a mash note to the movies, takes place somewhat east of Hollywood, in the thriving film culture of 1950s Bombay. If this New Group show, currently running at Theatre Row, has a sweetness to it that can sometimes skew syrupy, it spices up a typical backlot romance with subcontinental allure. Or does every show feature a chai wallah hero, Saleem (the adorable Nick Choksi)?
Bunty Berman (played by Din after the lead actor sustained an injury) presides over a faltering film studio. His flicks no longer draw crowds and his leading man, Raj (Sorab Wadia), is too tubby and old to continue as resident heartthrob. Against his better judgment, Bunty agrees to a partnership with a local gangster, Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari), hoping an influx of cash will rescue the studio. But the fine print on the contract suggests otherwise.
Din’s plays have typically struck high notes amid uneven New Group seasons. Director Scott Elliott has a talent for Din’s sort of uneasy domestic comedy, and his earlier non-musical works—East Is East, Rafta Rafta—disarm you with levity and then deliver a rabbit punch of poignance. Bunty never proves as satisfying. It hits all its expected plot and genre marks, but the score, though likeable, doesn’t distinguish itself. Other than the oft-reprised “Let’s Make a Movie” and a jolly Hindi number sung by Saleem and his leading lady crush, Shambervi (Lipica Shah), few songs register. The singing and dancing, though energetic, feels more slapdash than skillful.
Still, lyrics that dare to rhyme “lingam” with “swingin'” and “kama sutra” with “future” do delight. And as Saleem says, “Everyone needs a rousing Hindi film anthem to lift their spirits now and again.”