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Review: Bhangra Nation - A New Musical (Birmingham Rep)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

In the last year, Birmingham has proved to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to launching new musicals, showing that you can venture further afield than London to potentially see the big hitters of the future. Birmingham Rep is instrumental in these new shows - fresh from the world premiere of Sinatra The Musical late last year, they are kicking off their 2024 in-store with their first (but not their last) exciting UK premiere in the form of Bhangra Nation, but could this new musical beat all the competition to prove to be the next big thing?



Originally premiering in San Diego in 2022 under the title Bhangin’ It, the renamed Bhangra Nation gets its UK premiere in Birmingham, the city which fittingly claims to be the modern centre of Bhangra. It tells the story of the Uni Bhangra dance team as they attempt to make it to Nationals. When Mary and Preeti disagree on whether to stick with tradition or try something different, Mary creates her own rival dance group. As the competition heats up between them, themes of their own culture, heritage, and expectations play out as they ponder what Bhangra really means to them.

 

It is a story that will feel instantly familiar with the tried and tested competition aspect seen in musicals including Bring It On as well as movies Pitch Perfect, Sister Act 2, and, of course, the TV sensation Glee. While Bhangra Nation admittedly borrows elements of these whether intentionally or not, it manages to make the competition aspect by putting its own stamp on it and bringing a much-needed bit of culture to the affair. The result is a show which feels refreshingly familiar and fresh in itself, and one that fans of those titles, not to mention Heathers, will love.



Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew’s book weaves the narrative of Mary (Jena Pandya) as she breaks free from the restraints of tradition to create her own troupe. With effortless dialogue and a natural progression to the story which introduces multiple strands of more eclectic themes than you might expect, there is plenty to enjoy here, particularly the brilliant use of humour throughout, creating a rip-roaring comedy with no shortage of heart, Admittedly, it does suffer from slightly uneven parts at times and runs the risk of attempting to appeal to a younger generation so much with the language it uses that it could alienate other audiences who would find much to enjoy about this show. However, in the grand scheme of things, this is to be expected with a musical as new as this. The book in itself has far more going for it than against it and a few inevitable minor tweaks will make it all the stronger.

 

Sam Willmott’s music and lyrics have a similar feeling with some absolute showstoppers and standout numbers though this can be inconsistent with one or two numbers never matching the standard set elsewhere in the show. Early number ‘More Than Enough’ sets the bar high, Mary and Billy’s (Ivan Fernandez Gonzalez) duet ‘Toledo’ is a lot of fun, while act 2 number ‘Commit’ is a huge standout. The show’s most infectious number ‘Dot Dot Dot’ feels like a number everybody is sure to love… and hate that it won’t leave their head. Simplistic fun and proof of what Bhangra Nation can achieve at its best. ‘Nationals’ is one of the moments that doesn’t quite land with the big act two ballad ‘What Kind Of Person’ never quite reaching the showstopping nature it is clearly designed for due to feeling underwritten in parts. The lyrics throughout could sometimes use a bit of tightening up with some clumsy rhymes and an inconsistent standard letting the huge potential down.



Stafford Arima’s direction is a feast in every sense. If some of the content doesn’t always hit with the desired impact, this is more than made up with no shortage of inspired choices allowing the action to play out in stunning form. One sensational highlight and, for me, the standout moment of the entire show, is a gorgeous sequence involving Mary and a mirror. Simple and beautiful staging that reveals a great trick – I won’t ruin the surprise by divulging exactly what that is but, suffice to say, it was pure magic and gorgeous to witness.

 

Bhangra Nation is a very visual show and this is where the production truly shines. Michael Taylor’s set design initially feels sparse but reveals itself to be full of tricks, masterfully used throughout. Linda Cho’s costume design is simply exquisite, drawing influences from cultures referenced in the show and pulling them off with panache. Nick Richings’ lighting is used to great effect while there is a fantastic use of projection from David Bengali, transforming the stage flawlessly – though one minor criticism I have is that the quality of these projections could be better, sometimes cheapening the feel of the otherwise impressive stage.



This is a show where dancing forms a big part of it so you would have high hopes for the choreography. Thankfully, this doesn’t disappoint and proves to be one of the most jaw-droppingly fabulous elements of the show. Rjuta Vaidya’s choreography draws influences from Bhangram Bollywood and Hip-hop to name but a few, creating a true visual feast and some truly complex and crowd-pleasing sequences, meticulously performed. A testament to this creativity is in the diversity of the performances with solo numbers every bit as impactful as the big group numbers. Of course, the finale is every bit as grand and faultless as you would hope, sending the audience out on a high.

 

An impressively talented cast is on hand to tell the story of Bhangra Nation with Jena Pandya at the centre of it as Mary, captivating throughout. Siobhan Athwal is a force to be reckoned with in her role of Sunita, displaying a strong vocal and wonderful stage presence that threatens to steal scenes, while Ivan Fernandez Gonzalez delights in his turn as Billy, showcasing the attributes that make him a triple threat. Bob Harms gets a small but memorable role as Wallace in a true comic highlight of the production, with Sohm Kapila providing something refreshingly different in her turn as Rekha.



As new musicals go, there is much to be excited about Bhangra Nation. It may not be completely perfect just yet but its potential is unlimited. I truly believe this can be a five-star show if it just makes a few minor tweaks here and there to ensure the high bar it sets itself early on is matched from start to finish. This is a show that is going to appeal to a lot of people – those who have their own history and relation to the culture but ensuring it is accessible to those who have no experience of it at all. Quite possibly the next big thing in musical theatre, don’t be surprised if this travels the Nation in the not-too-distant future.

 

Bhangra Nation plays at Birmingham Rep until 16th March. Tickets from www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

 

Photos by Craig Sugden

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