Sung by the Right People / by R. Sheth

By Hedy Weiss
April 8, 2012

Casting can alter the meaning of a theatrical work in surprising and revelatory ways. Consider Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret, the fascinating world premiere revue devised by Silk Road Rising’s artistic director, Jamil Khoury.

The show is a smart, incisive, 90-minute collage of songs about the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Middle East — drawn from both the Broadway and pop music songbooks, and deftly interspersed with brief interludes of prose and poetry from writers spanning the 11th to the late 20th centuries. What alters or heightens the meaning and message of these pieces is that they are being performed by eight actors whose varied ethnic backgrounds cannot help but put into sharper relief both the naivete and sentimentality — as well as the idealism and satirical bite — of Western artists writing about places and people perceived as “exotic” or at least different.

Though not part of the lineup here, that jaunty little number from the musical “Avenue Q” titled “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” kept playing in my brain as I watched “Re-Spiced.” Yet at the same time, those considered “exotic” are reclaiming their true identity thanks to the presence of Silk Road’s actors with Asian, Middle Eastern and black roots.

The impressively wide-ranging revue kicks off with a song from “Aladdin,” that classic Disneyized version of the Middle East, and moves on to “Kismet,” the 1953 musical romance set in Baghdad; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forward-thinking “South Pacific”; Jerry Herman’s “Milk and Honey”; the Schonberg-Boublil epic “Miss Saigon,” and the high-spirited “Bombay Dreams,” the 2002 show created by a genuine Indian composer (A.R. Rahman) and English lyricist (Don Black).

All in all, a well-spiced, thought-provoking entertainment.

But it is the pop songs outside the Broadway realm that often prove most winning, from an oldies-but-goodies catalog that includes everything from Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and the Nat Simon-Jimmy Kennedy “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” to Frank Loesser’s “Slow Boat to China,” to a playful medley featuring “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Rock the Casbah” and “Kung Fu Fighting,” to an India-themed roundup featuring songs by Kenny Loggins, Boy Hits Car, Aerosmith and Alanis Morissette.

Joan Baez’s “China,” about the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square, is direct and fervent. Ice Cube’s “Black Korea” is a strident take on tensions between ghetto blacks and Korean shopkeepers. And in “Korean Parents,” Randy Newman is in top form as he advises Americans to get with the program of hard-driving, achievement-oriented Korean immigrants.

The spoken-word segments are exceptionally revealing and varied, lifted from the likes of Edith Wharton, W. Somerset Maugham, Andre Gide, Jean Genet, Victor Hugo, Yehuda Halevi, Victorian adventurer Gertrude Bell and most notably Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman whose words — expertly delivered by Evan Tyrone Martin (a standout in the cast) — might have been written yesterday.

Under the direction of Steve Scott and choreographer Brenda Didier, the actors work especially well as an ensemble (the individual voices are a mixed bag), with Christine Bunuan a notably zesty singer in many styles, along with Amira Sabbagh, Jaii Beckley, Dipika Cherala, Danny Bernardo, Joel Kim Booster and Joyee Lin. Musical director Ryan Brewster (who, like Didier, is a veteran of the superb Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre) provides the fine onstage piano accompaniment, along with guitarist Michael Evans. All in all, a well-spiced, thought-provoking entertainment.