Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical Premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse is a Wonderful Dance Party that Embraces the Beauty of Indian Culture and Diversity

With a Gorgeous Message of What it Means to Belong.

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardasht

Members of the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of BHANGIN’ IT: A BANGIN’ NEW MUSICAL; photo by Rich Soublet II.

Theatre this season -or whatever path we are on regarding programming because of the pandemic,- is getting bigger, bolder, and more diverse. I am here for it. Full lines in a completely different language during a dialogue with no subtitles, I am here for it. Music that I kind of heard with a traditional folk dance that I had never heard of or seen, I am here for it! 

Members of the cast of BHANGIN’ IT: A BANGIN’ NEW MUSICAL; photo by Rich Soublet II.
Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical, a world premiere by La Jolla Playhouse, recaps a lot of this. Exposing audiences to different cultures but going deeper using dance, music, and instruments pertaining to the cultural expression. With a book by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, music and lyrics by Sam Willmott, with additional music by Grammy Award nominee Deep Singh, Bhangin’ It takes place on a college campus in Michigan. Mary (Ari Afsar) is Indian-American and dances in the school's official Bhangra troupe which even though it has always been fun, they play it safe and by the rules. Mary as a senior wants to take artistic risks and incorporate dance steps from her late mother's danced discipline. She is severely antagonized by the troupe's bully, Preeti (Vinithra Raj) who claims she is whitewashing the culture and mixing Bhangra with other disciplines. She also takes jabs at Mary being mixed. With that, Mary takes the frustration to her best friend and roommate Sunita (Jaya Joshi) a fierce feminist and guard of what is right and fair, and they decide to create their own troupe welcoming of all to compete for nationals. Adventures follow as they hold auditions and most participants have two left feet but, a lot of heart and determination. The diverse new dance troupe is comprised of Billy (Brandon Contreras) sort of Mary's love interest, Constance (Laura Dadap), Noah (Henry Walter Greenberg), one of the faculty professors Wallace (Jason Heil), Jake (Terrance Johnson), Gobind (Jesse Bhamrah), and of course Mary and Sunita. It starts messy and continues to be messy as Mary does sort of cheat to get into the competitions and, as she finds Michigan's best Bhangra coach Rekha (Alka Nayyar) who gifts the group some karate kid style training in her restaurant "The Samosa Hut", Preeti will not stop taunting her and inspect her every move. Amit (Bilaal Avaz) the captain of the Tigers is fed up as well as his teammates, with Preeti's shenanigans who lets it slip out that Mary did not quit, that she made her go. There is a come to Jesus moment and they make it to finals. The rest of the Tigers are Mohan (Aryaan Arora), Shetal(Anu Mysore), Big Bob (Amey Natu), Varun (Zain Patel), New Mary (Devi Peot), and Shilpa (Ramita Ravi). Everybody is amazing and talented. Alka Nayyar is a joy to watch whether it's delivering a line or some choreo.

Ari Afsar (left) and Alka Nayyar in BHANGIN’ IT: A BANGIN’ NEW MUSICAL; photo by Rich Soublet II.
Bhangin’ It brings amazing things to the table. At times it gives a Bring It On vibe mixed with a Disney movie and as with all new pieces, especially musicals, the songs need more work to find their sound and essence. The choreography by Rujuta Vaidya along with musical staging by Lisa Shriver, and Bhangra specialist Anushka Pushpala, is absolutely stunning, on point, moving. It will definitely have audiences dancing in their seats as it is so contagious, vibrant, and pure accompanied by  Deep Singh master drummer who as well as doing additional music, being co-orchestrator and co-arranger, is playing the dhol on stage, an awesome drum/percussion instrument marking the beat. Not only is the message of the story beautiful, but the way that it is literally illustrated at the end also made me lose myself seeing different races in a Punjabi Tamba, dancing Bhangra. The musical showcases other types of beautiful dance like Bollywood and Giddha. Robert Brill's set design is bright and colorful with awesome lighting by Amith Chandrashaker and projection design by David Bengali that really made the scenes pop!

The United States is this melting pot of different cultures that migrate here and have families, hence mixed-raced children. The message starts out with the question of "where do I belong?" and answers with how powerful inclusion and community are regardless of color, background, what "you are" or where you come from, seasoned with a beautiful dance discipline. 

As I see these stories about playwrights being half white or migrating to the States and sharing their culture clash experiences with the audiences so others can identify and see themselves on stage, I think also this play shines a light on reflecting how our children are being raised as mixed in the US and to let them embrace the cultures they come from as well as their environment. 

To more stories like this with different colors and backgrounds onstage honoring how amazing it is to embrace the beauty of a culture that is different from our own.

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