“Taj Express,” the long-awaited return engagement of the company that brought “Merchants of Bollywood” to Long Island in 2010, opens its latest spectacle Friday night at Tilles Center before coming back to Staller Center in time for Valentine’s Day.
Tilles is just the second stop on the show’s North American tour that begins Thursday in Schenectady. The musical revue is a live-on-stage enactment of a Bollywood movie within a musical.
Bollywood, the sobriquet for the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is India’s and one of the world’s largest with box office sales measured at 4 billion tickets a year — far more than Hollywood though Bollywood brings in less revenue. All types of films are produced in Mumbai, but the term Bollywood is associated with romance-and-adventure musicals with lavishly garish costumes and dance extravaganzas — mostly, but not always, with happily-ever-after endings.
Though the British-produced “Slumdog Millionaire,” 2009’s Oscar winner for best picture — is not a Bollywood movie, it was set in Mumbai and starred many Indian actors. It also featured the Oscar-winning best song, A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho,” which here serves as inspiration for an aspiring young composer, played by Mikhail Sen, who has just landed his dream job — composing music for a new Bollywood romance titled “Taj Express.”
“It’s as good as a Bollywood movie except you’re seeing it live,” says director Shruti Merchant, who coproduced the show with her sister, Vaibhavi, choreographic director. The siblings are part of the Merchants of Bollywood family dynasty that brought the last major Bollywood theatrical touring show to Staller Center.
“People kept asking us when we’d bring them back,” says Alan Inkles, director of Staller Center. “ ‘When they have a new show and if we can get it,’ I said.”
This time the company is performing first at Tilles Center, booked by current director William Biddle’s retired predecessor, Elliot Sroka. “We usually stay away from doing the same show,” Inkles says, “but this is such a big production, we thought there’d be enough demand that we could help out the producers who needed lots of dates.”
LOVE ON A TRAIN
The show begins with the rookie composer, Shankar, leading a musical tour of his studio and creative world, taking us page by page through the script that comes alive as he’s reading it. His film, “Taj Express,” is the story of Kareena, a beautiful Bollywood actress, and Arjun, a street hero who rescues kids by offering them training in dance. Kareena is fleeing the celebrity pressures of an arranged-for-publicity relationship. Her chance meeting with Arjun gives her a means of escape — if they elude a villain with ulterior motives.
Meanwhile, the train takes the audience on a journey through India — represented in a projected film travelogue — from Mumbai to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
Ankush Dhawan, the show’s creative manager, promises an authentic Bollywood experience, with 2,000 colorful costumes and dance pageantry set to an original score by Salim-Sulaiman Merchant and Monty Sharma, plus Rahman’s greatest hit. “The show represents the best of the Bollywood film industry,” Dhawan says. “It’s literally like walking off the film set and onto the stage, showcasing live musicians playing fascinating rhythms and beats of this musical subcontinent.”
“The audience will want to go out the next day and buy a ticket to India,” says Shruti Merchant, “to come see our country.”
Sen, the actor who plays the young composer of the movie unfolding onstage, says he identifies with his character “because we’re both at a similar stage in our careers and we both reveal ourselves through our art.”
As did the Oscar-winning composer that Sen’s character idolizes. Rahman’s “Jai Ho” translates as “Be Victorious.”
No spoiler here, not having seen “Taj Express,” but we suspect a happy ending.