Ease on down to the Silk Road cabaret! / by R. Sheth

April 11, 2012
By Catey Sullivan

Jamil Khoury can now add cabaret creator to his already formidable resume. With Silk Road Rising’s Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret, he’s devised an evening of song and prose rooted in the vast, disparate geography and culture of the great Silk Road trade route. And while some of the songs are familiar, Re-Spiced casts them in a fresh, thought-provoking context that’s at once unexpected, engaging and at times even a bit startling.

The opening salvo falls into that last category, with a re-written version of “Arabian Nights” from Disney’s 1992 movie Aladdin. The piece manages to skewer every Far/Middle/Near Eastern stereotype Disney traffics in; the impact is both funny and pointed. It also sets the tone for the evening: Re-Spiced is a cabaret that celebrates the endless diversity found along a road that traversed three continents over some 4,000 miles. Re-Spiced also provides plenty of commentary on just how those cultures are sometimes viewed – and often exoticized, homogenized and demonized – by the forces of Western culture.

This is first and foremost cabaret, intended to entertain as opposed to enlighten.

But in shaping Re-Spiced, Khoury never falls into the trap of clubbing his audience over the head with didacticism or clichéd notions of political correctness. This is first and foremost cabaret, intended to entertain as opposed to enlighten. That it manages to also accomplish the latter is a testament to Khoury’s eye for creating a musical collage as well as the cast’s collective musical skills and director Steve Scott’s astute navigation of the tricky borderlands between comedy and tragedy.

With musical direction by Ryan Brewster, Re-Spiced often takes songs or poetic snippets that are deeply familiar and instills them with fresh, intense meaning. Such is the case with Jaii Beckley’s masterful delivery of the South Pacific chestnut “Bali Hai” – never have I heard the song performed with such haunting poignancy or underscored with such a profound, melancholic longing. It’s simply exquisite; an ode to a lost world of unspeakable beauty. The piece falls into Re-Spiced’s “location medley,” which also includes an insouciant take on “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” the manically proper “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and several lesser-known gems including Harry Warren’s 1928 tune “Nagasaki.”

That medley highlights one of the most impressive aspects of Re-Spiced - the sheer quantity of obscure but wholly intriguing numbers Khoury has unearthed. Thus, in addition to instantly recognizable pop songs (Liam Sternberg’s “Walk Like an Egyptian”, Carl Davis’ “Kung Fu Fighting”, the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese”), Re-Spiced offers what will surely be new discoveries for much of the audience (Randy Newman’s “Korean Parents”, the Cure’s “Killing an Arab”, Boy Hits Car’s “Going to India”). Here, you’ll find the brutality evoked in Edmund Burke’s 1783 speech on the East India Bill juxtaposed with the delicate sadness of Kismet’s “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”

In addition to that gorgeous turn on South Pacific from Beckley, Silk Road’s cast has several standouts. Dipika Cherala brings a clarity and an honesty to Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”, while Christine Bunuan displays some terrific comic timing in “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

And if you don’t think the writings of Gustave Flaubert, William S. Burroughs or Friedrich Nietzche have anything to say to contemporary matters of race, ethnicity and cultural appropriation, you’ll be of a different mind after Re-Spiced.