My first night of the Fringe Festival, and alas, I’ve finally seen true proof of that adage of the Fringe – you pays your money and you takes your chances. Tonight, my run of good Fringe luck ran out.
“Oy Calcutta” promises “comedy, spirituality… a diverse, musical mix that celebrates the unique magical mayhem of India”. Not only does it fail to deliver on most of these promises, it ends up being downright insulting to the culture it is supposedly celebrating. Although there are positive aspects to the show, they are only incidental pleasures of good musicians and performers stuck in a spectacularly bad production unworthy of their talents.
Thanks to Vancouver theatregoers’ oh-so-Canadian politeness – and I am certainly not immune to this – one rarely sees people walk out of a show here. But tonight I saw it happen, and were I and my partner situated at the end of an aisle, we would have done the same. As it was, we were trapped in our seats until the end – only a bit over an hour, but it felt interminable.
Perhaps my expectations for this show were wrong. I don’t think they were unreasonable. LIke, say, a lead performer who can sing. Show creator and co-star Stewart Katz was off-key from the get-go, and in an early rap song about Ganesh – the lyrics of which are actually fairly entertaining – he kept sliding out of sync with the (heavy, amplified) beat.
I also expected a story about India that actually had even one meaningful thought about the country, and drew on its rich jumble of culture and history, as experienced by a Western visitor, for a combination of humour and insight.
The show’s story, such as it is, is built around a tourist (Sue Newman) who arrives in India and encounters a series of characters, all played by Katz, and in particular a self-styled guru named Ganesha. How do we learn about her quest for inner peace? Because she keeps saying, “I’m here seeking peace.” Newman can sing up a storm but she is saddled with a “character” that is barely written, simply a prop for the next musical number. At one point Sue takes a call from her mother, who, as voiced by Katz, is a stock Jewish mother urging her daughter to eat chicken soup. There is no indication of Sue’s being Jewish, but hey! Jewish mothers are funny!
The dialogue and plot is chock-full of the lamest gags imaginable, many of which – like “We’re leaving on the midnight train to Goa!” – are apparently not intended as groaners.
Since this is a musical, I had some expectation there as well. Like songs that offer some clever lyrics and strive for some meaning.
We are promised, and I quote, “Electronica meets hip hop meets jazz meets country meets operetta meets reggae meets klezmer meets disco meets good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll”. Oddly, almost none of these styles are actually represented, but maybe that’s for the best.
The songs are a pastiche of pop and rap musical styles but serve no dramatic purpose whatsoever, with repetitive and juvenile lyrics that mostly lean on simplistic word substitutions for their “humour” (like “rowing down the Ganges” instead of “rollin’ on the river” to the tune of “Proud Mary”). True wit is nowhere to be found. Song after song commits the same sin of not adding anything to the show but simply an excuse for Katz to ham it up as one of his many buffoonish caricatures.
A character shows up speaking in Jamaican cliches (“India is irie, man!”), leading to – what else? – a song called “India is Irie”, containing little more in lyrical content than the title itself.
Just when I thought we’d seen the worst, though, the very bottom arrived, with a song about bodily functions called – wait for it – “You Must Urinate to Eliminate”. To avoid stirring up painful memories, I’ll only say one thing: this was the point in the show where both of us wanted to leave, but logistics prevented it. It’s also immediately after this song that one couple, more well-placed to do so, did make for the exits. Lucky devils.
Now, there are bright spots in this production. Newman’s singing is excellent – she belts out her numbers with strength and gusto. Too bad the songs themselves are so simplistic.
Another highlight is the live musicians – billed as the Ek Band Collective – who appear midway through the show, performing authentic Indian tunes with a talented vocalist. But the show fails them. Their appearance is unconnected to the narrative, and thus they introduce themselves as performers at the imaginary “Bollywood Cafe”. This is merely a phrase, not in any way a setting that is part of the show or story (and nothing to do with Bollywood, another promising topic). Additionally, the two songs performed are in Hindi, and given no context or explanation – we don’t learn what they’re singing about. For a show that purports to shine a light on Indian culture for a Western audience, this is a puzzling decision, but given the shortcomings of the overall show, it’s not a surprising one.
Additionally, the dancers do a fine job (although they seemed less than fully synchronized at times), with flowing and evocative moves. Again, though, they aren’t integrated into the show in any way.
Finally, mercifully, we arrive at an ending. But what’s this? They’re going all “deep” on us, aiming for poignancy as Sue and Ganesha stand in the aisle in dim light, viewing bodies being set on fire on the Ganges (a flame effect illuminates the stage to suggest this). Suddenly, Sue announces an instant revelation about letting go of guilt over her father’s death – yes, on only the second mention of him. The emotions aimed at in this scene are so unearned it made me feel resentful – the toilet humour of that earlier song still lingered.
To sum up, you’d think that a show featuring singing, dancing, and live music, and apparently trying to tap into the generous spirit of India couldn’t help but be good, but “Oy Calcutta” proves just how wrong you could be. This show is a disservice to musicals and Indian culture, nothing more than a simplistic string of cliches. A more fitting title for this show would be “Insult to India”.
If I can prevent one person from seeing “Oy Calcutta”, I will feel I’ve done my job.