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Theater Review: "The Boy Who Danced On Air"

Troy Iwata (Paiman)
Photo credit:
Simpatika

“If you decide the traditions are nothing, then you have nothing. You are only dancing on air.” - Jahandar

Afghanistan has strict laws about sexual behavior – and a practice called Bacha Bazi (“boy play”), in which poverty-stricken parents sell their boys as young as nine to wealthy, often married men who teach them to dance (dressed as women).

The boys entertain the local men and often serve as sexual outlets for their masters.

This is not the sort of topic you would expect to find a musical written about, but Diversionary Theatre presents the world premiere of just that – Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser’s musical “The Boy Who Danced On Air.”

The script could use some tinkering, but the show is remarkable as is. Inspired by the 2010 PBS documentary “The Dancing Boys Of Afghanistan,” it is directed by Tony Speciale and plays through June 12.

The Unknown Man (Koray Tarhan), acting as narrator/Greek chorus, tells us in flashback that the boy in question is Paiman (Troy Iwata), just arrived from the village to meet his master Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv). Paiman is distraught when told his father “doesn’t matter anymore – he sold you to me.”

But Paiman adapts, and turns out to be a natural dancer. He becomes the star performer locally, Jahandar’s pride and joy – and the envy of all the men in the village. Given Iwata’s grace and beauty – and a voice both powerful and expressive – it’s no wonder.

But Jahandar is a prisoner of tradition, which says that when a boy begins to show signs of manhood (facial hair), his owner must marry him off and find another dancing boy.

That time has come, and though Paiman is an obedient child who does what he’s told, he isn’t much interested in marriage. Nor does Jahandar want to give Paiman up, but as he puts it, “If you decide the traditions are nothing, then you have nothing. You are only dancing on air.”

Paiman’s life changes when he meets Feda (Sittichai Chaiyahat), whose owner is Jahandar’s friend Zemar (M. Keala Milles, Jr.).

Feda, treated much more brutally by Zemar than Paiman is by Jahandar – and naturally more adventurous – has ambitions of escape to the big city, where he envisions becoming a singing sensation. He wants Paiman to go with him.

The question then becomes which will triumph, tradition or dreams?

This plot is sufficient unto itself, but book writer Sohne wades into the weeds of political action by inserting a rather confusing and unnecessary subplot between Jahandar and Zemar involving a power plant built by the Americans, but never brought online.

It was, Jahandar says, intended to be used as a photo op, but he has plans to buy some fuel from American soldiers willing to make a few bucks on contraband and fire up the plant. These transactions all take place during card games between Jahandar and Zemar.

Rosser’s often lovely music bears out the fact that this is really a love story, and Cris O’Bryon’s piano and his quartet of players do an excellent job on the score.

This is a strong show technically as well. Sean Fanning’s set design, Shirley Pierson’s costumes, Kevin Anthenill’s sound design and Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting all contribute to the atmosphere. Iwata and Chaiyahat – not trained dancers – do a fine job with Nejla Y. Yatkin’s lovely choreography.

Director Tony Speciale’s small but splendid cast is headed by Iwata’s stunning voice and fine acting as Paiman. Chaiyahat’s Feda can’t match Iwata’s vocal power, but he’s a fine actor and their chemistry is evident.

Raviv is a fine singing actor and effectively gets across his push/pull relationship with Paiman. Milles does as well as anyone could with the underwritten part of Zemar. This part could use a rewrite.

Tarhan is excellent as the narrator known as Unknown Man. But the “reveal” at the end of the show needs work as well.

I couldn’t help hearing influences of other shows here: Jahandar’s frequent references to “tradition” bring to mind Tevye and the show-stopping song of that title, and “In The City” reminds me (in content) of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” in “West Side Story.”

This is the end of Diversionary’s 30th season, and it’s the best production they’ve done in a long time. Here’s to more of the same to come.

The details

“The Boy Who Danced on Air” plays through June 12, 2016 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights.

Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or diversionary.org