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New York City Theater

"The Boy Who Danced on Air"
June Havoc Theater

They’re called “bacha bereesh,” literally “boys without beards,” poor children apprenticed to a wealthy master, trained to dance and expected to partake in sexual favors. The subjects of a PBS Frontline documentary, “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan,” they’re now at the center of an intriguing, tuneful, hybrid off-Broadway musical, “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” Abingdon Theater’s production about love, violence and the traditions that unite them. It’s the love story that reaches the heart. When it veers off into a subplot about destroying a power plant, the show becomes more conventional.

With an excellent score (music by Tim Rosser, book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne), “Boy” tells of Paiman, a teenager taken from his family to serve as both entertainment and sex slave for Jahandar, an attractive married man whose wife -- in this sexist, misogynistic Afghan society -- is remanded to domestic duties.

For Jahandar, the arrangement evokes an ancient tradition and therefore is not to be tampered with. Jahandar’s traditional in other ways, as well: dead set against invading Americans’ building a power plant in their effort to modernize the country, he takes violent action to stop the plan.

Paiman, meanwhile, falls in love with Feda, an older dancing boy. They decide to run away to the big city, where Feda would pursue a singing career.

Here’s the rub. Jahandar has, by this time, seemingly fallen in love with Paiman, although he won’t admit it. The boy, who was ten years old when first bought, is now a nubile sixteen. Following custom, he must be married off to a wife of Jahander’s choosing. Incensed when he finds out that Paiman wants to run away, Jahander warns him, “To kill you would teach you nothing.” Actually, of course, it’s the older man who needs to be taught.

But this turn, smacking as it does of pedophilia, is so left up in the air that it’s as if the authors were fearful of developing it further. Instead they cheat by pussyfooting around it, tantalizing with questions of sexuality and dominance. If only the show had been more courageous, going wherever this admittedly distasteful path led.

As it is, there’s power in the whirling, diaphanous dances choreographed by Nejla Yatkin, as the boys twirl while wearing baubles, bangles and beads, their skirts caught in rhythms both sensual and uplifting. (Kudos to costume designer Andrea Lauer.)

The performances are uneven, but the central characters, Jahandar and Paiman, are played with sensitivity by Jonathan Raviv and Troy Iwata. Raviv’s powerful voice and Iwata’s alluring dancing are spellbinding.

As Zemar, Jahandar’s cousin, Osh Ghanimah is saddled with admittedly bad jokes and a superficial character. As Feda, Nikhil Saboo dances well and is brazen without being particularly magnetic, while Deven Kolluri as the narrator is barely audible. 

Tony Speciale’s direction does wonders on the theater’s small stage, making it seem as if an entire village is portrayed. Christopher Swader and Justin Swader’s bombed-out set, as lit by Wen-Ling Liao, is like another character, ruined yet a reminder of the past.

The beautiful act one finale, “When I Have a Boy of My Own,” could be a breakout hit. Other numbers are as haunting: “A Song He Never Chose,” “With Him Around Me,” “Kabul.” In Tim Rosser’s evocative orchestrations, they’re played by a terrific band on violin, bass, piano, guitar, percussion and rubab, the latter a kind of lute.

Like “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” the rubab is both exotic and recognizable. There’s something at once seductive and repellent about a civilization torn between tradition and modernity.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 29, 2017

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