As the centuries-old Afghan tradition of Bacha Bazi (i.e. selling boys from poor families to wealthy masters to serve as their private entertainment) continues well into the present day, a couple of teenage dancers fall into first love in Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne’s gorgeous and powerful The Boy Who Danced On Air, the latest World Premiere musical from San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre.
Narrated in song by a robed, bearded character known only as The Unknown Man (Koray Tarhan), The Boy Who Danced On Air introduces us to handsome 40something Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv) and the beautiful smooth-cheeked Paiman (Troy Iwata), purchased to be his Bacha Bareesh, a youth whose job until reaching full manhood will be not only to dance and sing but also to provide sexual favors to a master forbidden by traditional Afghan Islam from contact with any female not his wife.
So smitten is Jahandar by the comely young Paiman that he does the boy the “honor” of neither beating him nor lending him out to his sex-starved buddies, a fate that Paiman’s fellow Bacha Bareesh Feda (Sittichai Chaiyahat) can only envy, his own master Zeman (M. Keala Milles, Jr.) finding himself less inclined to spare the rod and spoil the sex slave.
When the dreamy-eyed Paiman and the cocky (and equally ravishing) Feda meet, not only do sparks ignite between the two youths. So does the possibility of escape and the even headier possibility of romantic love between equals.
Inspired by the PBS documentary The Dancing Boys Of Afghanistan, Rosser and Sohne’s daring, provocative musical not only introduces Western audiences to a way of life hidden deep behind the Afghan curtain but also to the work of two of contemporary musical theater’s finest up-and-coming creative duos.
Sohne’s eye-opening book and his equally enlightening lyrics combine with Rosser’s exquisite melodies to tell a contemporary gay love story that proves a perfect fit for the country’s 3rd-oldest LGBT theater, one that entertains, captivates, and moves in equal measure while recounting in shades of gray what others might have made a black-and-white tale of purity-vs.-perversity.
As Paiman and Feda discover that there is more to love than servility and submission, Jahandar reveals himself to be the opposite of a mustache-twirling villain as he determines to bring his village into the 21st Century by secretly fueling the local power plant built and then abandoned by the American military even as he seeks to find a suitable future for a Paiman whose soon-to-sprout whiskers have made him too old to fulfill a role considered by his master to be a noble centuries-old Afghan tradition.
Under Tony Speciale’s pitch-perfect direction, an East Coast-West Coast cast of five deliver one unforgettable performance after another, beginning with raven-haired stunner Iwata, whose romantic dreamer of a Paiman is matched by an equally stunning Chaiyahat in a supremely confident star turn belying his mere sixteen years of age.
Both performers execute choreographer Nejla Y. Yatkin’s graceful Middle East moves (including plenty of dervish whirls) with such polished grace, you’d think that each was a trained dancer (which astonishingly neither is).
Raviv’s leading-man charismatic Jahandar is another winner, played with such heroic sincerity that you can almost forget the monstrosity of the tradition he so righteously and resolutely upholds (“Break one rule because you want to and the whole structure begins to crumble”), and like Iwata and Chaiyahat, Raviv’s vocals are simply sublime under Cris O’Bryon’s expert musical direction.
Tarhan brings layers of depth (and a tiptop tenor) to the enigmatic Unknown Man and Milles too makes a strong impression as the twisted Zemar, whom the writers likewise refuse to make a stock villain.
Though The Boy Who Danced On Air’s final scene could benefit from less ambiguity, Rosser and Sohne’s songs merit uniformly high marks for their mix of infectious pop melodies with Middle Eastern shadings, backed by a terrific four-piece band featuring PJ Bovee, Jay Hemphill, Natalka Kytasty, and Dan Ochipinti.
One Rosser/Sohne gem in particular, the Act One closer “A Boy Of My Own” earns Best-Of-Show cheers and tears, a duet between Paiman and Feda that starts out as a wish to be treated with love and respect, then into a dream of how each will someday treat his own boy, and finally into a realization that they have already found that dream fulfilled in each other.
The Boy Who Danced On Air features one of Diversionary’s most outstanding production designs ever. Sean Fanning’s deliberately dingy set and Bonnie Durben’s just-right props have been magically lit by Wen-Ling Liao. (The live human shadow projections are particularly attention-grabbing.) Kevin Anthenill’s sound design provides a crisp clear mix of vocals and instrumentals.
Most impressive of all are Shirley Pierson’s eclectic mix of Afghan costumes, from traditional robes to cute boywear to lavish silk-and-lace dancing gowns. George Yé scores points too for his realistic fight choreography.
Monica Perfetto is resident stage manager. Matt M. Morrow is executive artistic director. Matt Harding is general manager. Rob Granat and Al Mazur are production sponsors.
I’ve seen many a memorable musical at Diversionary Theatre over the past eight years including the World Premiere of Harmony, Kansas and the West Coast Premiere of Yank!
The Boy Who Danced On Air’s World Premiere is not only Diversionary at its best, it makes a road trip to San Diego an absolute must for lovers of new musical theater at its most innovative and exhilarating.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.
May 14, 2106