Hackney Empire has always held a special place in my heart and memories, including going as a teen to my first live show of Rocky Horror (in costume of course), and as an adult taking my MA classmates (a global smorgasbord of nationalities) to their first experience of the great British pantomime. So when an invitation came in to check out a new musical there I jumped at the chance, and not just because I could be home in my PJs fifteen minutes after curtain.
Vanara: The Legend. The Musical – The concept: two tribes sharing the same land, one beholden to the moon who have fire, one beholden to the sun and can hunt, each wanting what the other has. Enter a young woman from one side who meets a young man from the other, and they fall in love. But then an impending disaster is predicted by The Oroznah (think Rafiki in The Lion King and you’ll be spot on) meaning everyone needs to come together to survive. The reality: a bit of an overlong confusing mess.
We start with an introduction to the tribes and the ‘trade’, but for most of the song I thought they were saying ‘train’ and was very confused. This pretty much set the tone for the whole piece – overly long, confusing, and with many totally unnecessary parts. We could have been introduced to them in words in half the time (a running problem with the show), and without the choreography that tried to differentiate the tribes during the opening moments, but then became an unclear jumble as the performance continued. It was mostly downhill from here. There were a few moments where I genuinely thought ‘this song has potential’, the one sticking in my mind being about women being essential to men’s survival, but sadly it rambled off, becoming too long and unmemorable, as did all others in the production.
I spent a large portion of the evening playing ‘what musical moment does this remind me of?’ We started with The Lion King, then mixed in the Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story of the lovers’ predicament; the Pana Tribes leaders who could be the Thenardier’s in Les Misérables; the love song straight out of Miss Saigon (side note Emily Bautista would be a stunning Kim); the Montague and Capulet fight in Romeo and Juliet (spoiler warning) with a loved one’s death starting a war. I could go on…
Credit where credit is due, there are some stunning voices in the cast, particularly Emily Bautista (Ayla), Jacob Fowler (Mohr) and Kayleigh McKnight (Sindah) all of whom I hope to see on stage again soon.
I had high hopes for the show, hearing good feedback and rumours of a cult following having started. Sadly they were met with confusion and disappointment. After a nearly two hour first half I had lost hope, as had others, whose seats remained empty after the interval. For most of the second half I found myself rolling my eyes every time a new song started as I wondered just how many more would be stuffed in the two and a half hour show. The audience filled with loved ones seemed to lap it up, but as myself and my companion discussed it on the way home, we were both at a loss as to why.
Book By: Michael Conley
Music by: Gianlucca Cucchiara
Lyrics by: Andrew Whelan
Directed by: Adam Lenson and Eleesha Drennan
Produced by: Giovanna Romagnoli and Gianluca Cucchiara
Vanara – The Legend plays at Hackney Empire until 30 October. Further information and booking via the below link.