Bollywood comes to the stage with innovative choreography amidst simple staging.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Toby Gough)||8|
|Script (Toby Gough)||8|
|Music (Parivesh Singh)||8|
|Choreography (Devdendra Singh)||9|
|Production Design (Tom Kitney)||8|
Made famous by the hit 2002 film starring Shah Rukh Khan and Aiswarya Rai, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Devdas finally receives an epic stage adaptation, complete with large scale projections, mass dance numbers, and of course, the same tragic love story that captured the hearts of millions.
Written and directed by Toby Gough, Devdas is essentially India’s own ‘Romeo and Juliet’, where the titular Devdas (Sunil Palwal) is forcefully separated from childhood sweetheart Paro (Aanchal Chauhan) due to class differences. While the two go their separate ways, the breakup has a far more devastating effect on Devdas, who retreats to a brothel and becomes an alcoholic. With his heart remaining firmly with Paro, he eventually tries to reunite with her, only to fail, and leave Paro to watch him die from alcohol poisoning before her eyes.
What made the original Devdas film so compelling was the evocative set pieces that breathed life into 1900s Calcutta, with resplendent houses and elaborate costumes, feeling akin to an epic love story that spanned centuries and generations. Perhaps limited by its stage format or touring limitations, this version of Devdas does not feature huge set pieces, but instead relies solely on large scale projection to bring out the setting.
Designed by Tom Kitney, these projections are intended to immerse audience members in the world of Devdas, filling the entire back of the Esplanade Theatre stage. While they are mostly vibrant and animated, from opulent interiors to fiery statues of vengeful gods, one cannot help but feel there is a degree of artifice that hampers them from fully immersing us in the world of Devdas. This is furthered hampered by the large, mostly bare stage (unlike the production photos provided), which feels cold and empty when not filled with dancers.
The only set piece onstage are two wooden staircases that combine to form an arch. While these are versatile, used to create an elevated level in certain scenes, or to act as a platform to showcase the lovers, the material itself looks plain compared to the projections, and does not seem to match their splendour. It is often only when the projections go more surreal or act as a backdrop to mass choreography that there is life breathed onto the stage, creating an almost hypnotic effect as it moves in time with the dancers.
Where Devdas really excels is in its dance sequences, as choreographed by Devdendra Singh, set to Parivesh Singh’s music. The costumes of Devdas have been carefully selected for each sequence, capturing the characters’ status and class, and allowing for both ease of movement and beauty, from colourful, bejewelled saris to handsome kurtas. Particularly outstanding among the showstopping numbers are the ones inspired by gods and celebrations, such as a second act sequence where the male dancers leap in unison, showcasing physical prowess and chemistry while a divine presence watches on.
As the leads, Sunil Palwal and Aanchal Chauhan are convincing enough as lovers, and in their dance sequences, they are given the entire stage to themselves, lifting, almost gliding across it in their joy spending time with each other. Amidst all the melodrama, their undying love remains a constant, and seeing how happy they are with each other makes us root for them as a couple, and anticipate them performing with each other again by reuniting.
Most of all, it is Bhavna Pani, as the courtesan Chandramukhi, who excels in all her scenes, with her long skirt lifting and spinning alongside her as she performs complex, graceful choreography, backed up by her troupe of female dancers to form a mesmerising phalanx of dancers moving as one. Bhavna exudes a unique, sensual charm, felt no matter how far from the stage you’re sitting, and ensures she is always the centre of attention whenever she is performing. One only wishes that the cast overall had more rehearsals for greater synchronisation, particularly evident in sequences such as a twin aerial silk performance, where aerialists Daria Nazimova and Victoria Biskup were slightly out of sync with each other, dampening an otherwise impressive showcase of skill.
Overall, Devdas is an enjoyable performance primarily for its dance sequences, which help smooth over issues such as manually-operated scrolling surtitles, and heavy reliance on the audience to suspend their disbelief to fully invest in the play. Towards the end, watching the lovers perform one final number together, before the entire ensemble comes back onstage for a glorious, Bollywood-worthy outro, you feel the celebratory mood fill the theatre, and the sheer jubilation the cast exudes. Ostensibly a different beast from the film adaptation, this stage adaptation of Devdas has its own appeal, and impresses with its committed cast and beautiful choreography.
Devdas The Musical played from 21st to 23rd April 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre. More information available here and here
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