Playwrights: David Kersnar, Jai Uttal
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company
Phone: ( 312 ) 337-0665; $30-$58
Runs through: April 2 only
The possibilities excited me regarding a musical adaptation of The Ramayana by Lookingglass Theatre, Natya Dance Theatre and the Chicago Children's Choir ( CCC ) . I envisioned Mughal paintings brought to life and living incarnations of sensual, muscular, classical Indian sculpture. Instead, the substantial forces of the three organizations have taken the 2,300-year-old Hindu epic of the prince/god Rama—a saga of adventure, love and spirituality—and Andrew Lloyd Webberized it.
As Webber did with the Old Testament tale of Joseph, so Lookingglass, et al., have done with Rama and his wife Sita; they've turned The Ramayana into a pop oratorio. This modern-dress, soft-rock, expurgated edition detaches the epic from its cultural context; reduces the story line to comic book stature; and strips away all sensual and sexual energy and most—not quite all—spiritual value. David Kersnar's adaptation relies heavily on narration vs. action, and reduces Rama from a vigorous, athletic hero to a passive, reactive figure. The few dialogue scenes are horribly stilted. The gods be kind to us—Sita Ram is dull even with 40 actors, dancers, singers and musicians.
It's also musically and visually derivative of musical theater beginning with Hair, passing through Godspell, falling under Webber's shadow and finishing at The Lion King. Composer Jai Uttal's soft-rock ballads; poly-rhythmic dance; and choral sequences and ensemble anthems are pleasant and easy to hear—exceptionally well-performed by the company under musical director Josephine Lee—but sooooo retro. Inspiration fails even stellar costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, who dresses most players in jeans with a T-shirt or a contemporary Indian shirt or tunic, and has everyone barefoot. Even her color palette is dull and limited, except for the dancers' costumes.
Could any of my disappointment with Sita Ram be self-derived? Almost certainly. I expected music drawn from classical Indian traditions and instruments, I expected a visual odyssey to another culture, I expected dynamic and physicalized storytelling. Clearly, Kersnar and Uttal were on a different road. Sita Ram began as a project for the CCC: a work of art for 9- to 18-year-olds whose musical theater awareness probably doesn't predate The Lion King or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ( also originally a cantata for children ) . Somehow, I expected Sita Ram to be reconceived for adults and more fully dramatized for the Lookingglass stage. Instead, it remains resolutely adolescent. That's not all bad; the energy, enthusiasm and high order of musicianship—regarding both the ensemble and soloists—of the CCC members are the show's glory. But it's not what I wanted.
I wanted what Mary Zimmerman so excitingly did with the Buddhist epic, Journey to the West, or what Lookingglass did with The Arabian Nights and Metamorphoses ( both also Zimmerman projects ) . I wanted a window into another world and, instead, got another Webberization of a sacred text.