'Sita Ram' a joyful pop opera based on Hindu epic
by Hedy Weiss
In the 1980s, the "Mahabharata" was made into a nine-hour spectacle. Now, in a charming and hugely ambitious cross-cultural leap, Lookingglass Theatre, in collaboration with two other local arts institutions â€“ the Chicago Children's Choir and Natya Dance Theatre -- has turned to the "Ramayana." The result is a joyfully exuberant, cross-cultural pop opera that runs just over two hours (and might benefit from a 15-minute trim) â€“ a work that combines classical Indian raga and chants, rock ballads, a bit of hip-hop and break-dancing and an ingenious hybrid of the classical Indian dance-theater known as kathakali and the innately Chicago technique of story theater. It's called "Sita Ram" (for the two lovers at its heart).
The show is a total delight, ideal for family audiences. It is also, sad to say, sold out for its current limited run, which received its world premiere this weekend in Lookingglass' intimate Water Tower Water Works space. But don't despair. While the cost and logistics involved might be monumental, it is still a good bet that this production will have some kind of future life.
"Sita Ram" is the creation of director-writer David Kersnar and Grammy-nominated composer and co-lyricist Jai Uttal, a New York-bred musician with Indian roots and a flair for the world beat. They have received creative assistance from both Natya Dance's choreographer, Krithika Rajagopalan, and her corps of highly expressive, vibrantly costumed dancers, and from the Children's Choir's young and charismatic artistic director, Josephine Lee, who leads the teen chorus and is conductor-keyboardist for an orchestra of nine.
The story is narrated by the ever-faithful Hanuman (the Isaiah M. Robinson), who is goaded into telling the tale by Little Monkey (played with great vivaciousness at Saturday's matinee by tiny Mariana Oharenko, an actress-dancer of impressive polish, and one of three children rotating in the role). Hanuman homes in on the terrible reign of Ravana, a force of evil (played with perfect nastiness by Anish Jethmalani), and his attempt to intervene in the fervent love-match of the young and devoted Rama (the boyish, sweet-voiced Avilla Martin), and his beautiful, equally devoted fiance, Sita (the strikingly pretty, honey-voiced Pranidhi Varshney). Along the way, Ravana's hot-stuff sister, Surpanakha (Sharon Muthu, who nearly steals the show with her sexy siren song), causes additional trouble.
Adding to the spicy flavor are Scott C. Neale's brilliantly colored street signs of India, Mara Blumenfeld'sf curry-tinted costumes (many imported from India), Chris Binder's deft lighting, plus shadow puppets and exotic instruments. There are moments when it feels like you are watching a traveling troupe that has set up shop in the center of an Indian village, and you half expect a cow or water buffalo to wander through. At other times the whole thing looks like an elaborate suburban school pageant.