Gianluca Cucchiara and Andrew Whelan ( music and lyrics ) have created a mythical love story with heavy climate change resonances that pounds and soars,with its tribal rhythmic dances- it’s a show that entrances and sometimes baffles. Occasionally the colloquial, darkly comic book by Michael Conley seems at odds with the overall aura of other-worldliness that director Adam Lenson and designer Libby Todd have created in this strange land of Vanara.
Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we have two households with an ancient grudge that breaks out anew. We have star-crossed lovers and the accidental murder of a brother and you don’t need to be a top brain to realise that Vanara is not a million miles from Verona.
But it seems we are wrong – the weirdly comic prophetess The Oroznah( Johnnie Fiori) tells the wayward tribes that Vanara is not the forest, not a place at all: it is a people. Make of that what you will. The storyline is straightforward -as they move towards a long night of darkness, the Pana – servants of the sun – must steal the secret of fire from the Kogalisk – servants of the moon.
Into this rivalry, Ayla ( Emily Bautista) as heir to the Kogalisk dynasty, falls in love with Mohr ( Jacob Fowler) the Pana heir with fatal consequences. Can the two tribes not go to war but live in peace? It’s a world inhabited by feisty, domineering women and rather feckless subordinate men.
The great quality of the show is the musicality of it – real echoes of Miss Saigon -especially in Emily Bautista’s soaring, beautifully toned solos. There are strong songs too from Jacob Fowler and from the villainous Rooh( Joaquin Pedro Valdes ) as Ayla’ s unwanted love interest.
Glenn Carter gets a lot of comedy out of his subservient role to his wife, who really leads the Pana, and I could listen all night to Cavin Cornwall’s Kogalisk patriarch, with his rich deep velvet voice.
I suspect this is a Marmite musical – you’ll ether be drawn in by it or dismiss it. I think it’s a show that has somewhere to go – and I’m sure with further development it could take its place on a West End or Broadway stage. Like its main characters, it has a fire within.
Vanara is at Hackney Empire until 31 October – vanarathemusical.com