Groove is in the heart at ‘Merchants of Bollywood’

The music and dance extravaganza Merchants of Bollywood kickstarted its multicity North American and Canadian tour in Chicago this weekend. For two performances only, the show (which I’m told through press materials was a hit in London, Australia and Germany) swirled into the Auditorium Theatre.

The show, written and directed by Toby Gough and choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant, is an explosion of color, beads and energy. In the style of Bollywood musicals, it has a paper thin plot that exists merely to support one fantastical production number after another concluded by a wedding. In this case, the plot is the life story of Merchant, who’s a major Bollywood choreographer in real life, and her struggle of finding her voice as an artist in an industry stuck in tradition and creative stasis.

Not surprisingly, the choreography shines (as do the stunning costumes by Falguni Thakore). Routines range from elegant traditional Hindu dances (I’m assuming? I’m no expert here) to modern, hip-hop inspired Bollywood production numbers. The sexy and athletic cast looks like they’re having a great time, and their joy is simply contagious.

It’s when the plot comes in that things start to drag. Not because the story is dull — in fact, I found the multi-generational conflict intriguing. The problem is it’s barely developed, so the characters are reduced to saying insipid dialogue and hitting the most basic of emotions.

And, to be blunt, I found the use of canned music inexcusable — especially at these ticket prices and in a show that touts itself as “no expense spared.” To me, prerecorded music cheapens the thing, making it seem like a 2.5 hour theme park revue.

But looking around the Auditorum theatre at the end, the audience didn’t really seem to mind. They were clapping, dancing, and having a grand old Bollywood time. And I’m guess that’s all that really matters.

“The Merchants of Bollywood” plays Detroit, Newark and Atlantic City in October. More info here >

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