By unabashedly borrowing from literary works and specific American ethnic cultures (the nuance of the latter unfortunately lost in translation), Charles Mee creates, with Queens Boulevard (The Musical), another of his staged collages: works more successful in conveying an overall look and feeling than a narrative structure — or really, in this case, a cohesive point.
Earlier this season, Mee, in collaboration with director Ann Bogart, provided a much better example of a successful conglomeration of ideas and images with Hotel Cassiopeia, which played at BAM. The show conveyed an inspired interpretation of the inner and everyday life of the late Queens-based artist Joseph Cornell, and provided at times the sense of residing within one of the artist’s fanciful boxes, or at least somewhere in the depths of his escapist mind. Although the idea with Queens Boulevard is similar, the attempt to capture the essence of an entire borough (rather than the life and art of one man within it) results in some very obvious corner cutting, including a lot of stale stereotyping that never really flies, even as part of a colorful fairytale.
Based on traditional dramatic Indian dance, specifically a Katha-Kali play called The Flower of Good Fortune, the skeleton of the plot is simple: newlyweds return home from their wedding, and the bride mentions how much she loves a flower that someone gave her as a gift. To please her with a surprise, the groom sneaks out to find his new wife another one of the special flowers. Along the way he runs into a number of obstacles and has adventures that lead him, ultimately and unfairly, into jail before he is able to return home. The husband, Indian-American Vijay (Amir Arison), is the romantic, and turns out to be quite easily influenced. He gets blown around Queens with his male friends from Muslim funeral to Asian birth, and from Irish bar to Russian bathhouse, as though he has no free will. While he’s gone, his Japanese bride Shizuko (the enthusiastic Michi Barall, who is, incidentally, Mee’s real-life wife) has her own girly adventures in obstetrics, shopping and cheesy hip-hop club-going.
There is plenty to enjoy in Queens Boulevard, but nothing that makes the musical any more than a compilation of decent singing and dancing, jokes that induce more embarrassed than sincere laughter, and unnecessarily revealing (both physically and psychologically) moments. Queens is indeed an interesting place, and the differences between, and relationships among men, and women is a topic that will never really get old, but the elements that Mee tosses into this piece of cultural collage never gel together successfully, and, thus, the magic that may have been is clearly absent