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Dreaming Big 

Bollywood stage production conquers America

Now that the movie kingdom of Bollywood has conquered the West, or at least made its presence known, one can mention a Bollywood film and images of elaborate dance numbers and melodrama spring to mind.

Hindi films from Mumbai, along with films from South India in several other languages, boast the planet's largest and most popular film industry. According to Time magazine, India's filmmakers crank out about 1,000 movies each year (dwarfing Hollywood's 750), and they attract an estimated global audience of 3.6 billion. That's about a billion more than Hollywood blockbusters.

Bollywood, a play on the words Bombay and Hollywood that stuck, has recently made inroads in the hallowed halls of international cinema, the Academy Awards and even the Cannes Film Festival. But there have been almost no marriages of Broadway and Bollywood.

Now with the scope and production values of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, Bollywood splashes its unique brand of Technicolor into the theaters of Broadway and beyond.

Webber's musical actually premiered in London's West End in 2002 and had a run on Broadway from April 2004 to January 2005. When it hit Broadway, several numbers were dropped and new songs and scenes added in a rewrite of the original London production.

Bombay Dreams tells the tale of Akaash, a slum-dwelling young man who dreams of achieving fame and romance in India's Tinseltown. The story is simple: We've got an underdog hero, an aloof diva and sinister forces working to keep the two from crossing paths.

Bombay Dreams touches on the many common themes of Hindi films, including heritage, the pitfalls of success, friendship and the power of love. There's even a love triangle. Sweetie, a eunuch and friend of Akaash, also holds a place in his heart for the hero. Anish Sheth, who honed his acting skills at NYU, plays Sweetie. During a brief chat he boasted of the multi-hued cast of the touring production, which includes young actors like him who grew up in the US but were weaned on the Bollywood music playing in their parents' tape decks.

The show features a contemporary score by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Don Black. While it's based on a book by Meera Syal and Thomas Meehan, the production is also based on a meeting of the minds between Indian director Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Rahman is the current reigning music composer of Bollywood, as well as the films of Southern India, and has sold some 100 million recordings. He attended Trinity College of Music at Oxford University and received a degree in Western Classical Music. Since coming into the limelight after scoring the music for the Tamil language film Roja, Rahman has composed scores for several dozen films, including the 2002 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nominee, Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India. He recently composed the score for the theatrical musical version of The Lord of the Rings, which is currently playing in Toronto.

Rahman has done better work. The songs from Bombay Dreams are disco-laden numbers that seem stuck in a specific era, as opposed to his many other compositions that have a timeless quality. He has also recycled some of his own melodies for Bombay Dreams. And while the big hit "Shakalaka Baby" is feisty enough, Rahman's work in several films, including Dil Se and Earth, shadow his compositions for this production.

But this is the first time Broadway has embraced India in such a grand manner, so the clichés, musical slips and generic lyrics can be forgiven. Bombay Dreams is decidedly the biggest Broadway production with an Indian theme, where colorful costumes and exotic dance numbers enliven the shortfalls.

Critics in the US haven't been too kind. Yet the glitz, the colors and the visuals of Mumbai and Bollywood come to life in Bombay Dreams' elaborate production numbers and stage setup, not the least of which includes a fully operational water fountain under which the cast performs the hit "Shakalaka Baby."

Cast members for this touring musical (co-produced by Atlanta's Theater of the Stars with members of the Independent Presenters Network) include Sachin Bhatt as Akaash, Sandra Allen as Rani and Reshma Shetty as Priya in addition to Sheth as Sweetie.

Bombay Dreams comes to Charlotte July 25 to 30 for a run at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Single ticket prices range from $20 to $61 and are available now at the PAC box office, by calling 704-372-1000 or online at www.BlumenthalCenter.org or www.CarolinaTix.org.

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