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'Holler If Ya Hear Me' review: Uneven tribute to Tupac Shakur

Saul Williams as John, Dyllon Burnside as Anthon

Saul Williams as John, Dyllon Burnside as Anthon and Joshua Boone as Darius in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" directed by Kenny Leon on Broadway at the Palace Theatre in NYC. Credit: Joan Marcus

It's fitting that the ambitions behind "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are as outsized as the artist who inspired it -- rapper, poet and actor Tupac Shakur.

Led by director Kenny Leon, who won the best director Tony earlier this month for his work on "Raisin in the Sun," the "Holler" creative team looks to bring hip-hop culture to Broadway and pay tribute to the late Shakur's music and poetry. To make it even more difficult, they do it without a well-known story, but instead with an original one written by Todd Kreidler, who developed it from listening to Shakur's music.

That's a lot to ask. And it's to Leon's credit that "Holler," a simple story of how the people on a current-day block of an unnamed Midwestern industrial town deal with a tragedy, turns out as well as it does.

The story centers on John, impressively played by Saul Williams, who returns to the block after a six-year stint in prison. He was once a creative guy, a hero to many on the block, but his crime and his sentence have taken their toll on him and those who loved him. In his life, he has shut down emotionally -- a trait many of the characters share, especially John's former girlfriend Corinne, played beautifully by Saycon Sengbloh.

But the fire and a ferocity in Williams' performance, especially in "Me Against the World," would put most of today's rappers to shame. He manages to act while rapping so distinctly that the rhymes can still be understood by the audience.

"Holler If Ya Hear Me" has flashes of brilliance, especially in its celebrations. The battle of the sexes in "I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up" is a thrill to watch, especially as the females in the cast come out on top. The unbridled joy of "California Love," as they all dream of escaping the block's realities, is contagious, as the mix of dance and musical styles mirrors the best of Shakur's party vibe.

However, the story often feels like it's jumping through hoops to move from one stellar performance from the cast to the next. It becomes a roller coaster of emotions for those on the stage, but they're moving so fast that the audience doesn't really get a chance to connect to them.

In the end, "Holler" leaves you feeling more exhausted than inspired.

WHAT "Holler if Ya Hear Me"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, Manhattan

INFO $59-$129; 800-745- 3000,

BOTTOM LINE Bringing Tupac Shakur's legacy to Broadway, with wildly uneven results.

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