Sita Ram

Lookingglass Theatre Company

Unfamiliar movements intended to convey unknown religious stories are not an easy sell. More than a decade ago I watched dozens of people walk out on a Natyakalalayam Dance Company performance in the classical Indian style of bharata natyam. They’d come to see a well-known local Irish dance troupe on the same program, and once that was over they left. It was a shame, especially since Krithika Rajagopalan, the daughter of Natyakalalayam artistic director Hema, danced magnificently.

It’s a different matter with Lookingglass’s new musical, Sita Ram, whose run is sold out (though standby tickets are available). This show makes Indian dance accessible by putting it in a Western context. But today the stakes are much higher than getting an underexposed genre some respect. With religious wars raging across the planet, many people have come to see religion in any form as only a source of murderous conflict. Sita Ram’s greatest accomplishment is the rehabilitation of a religious point of view: it’s a musical-theater comedy whose message, means, and feeling are devotional.

Not that there’s any proselytizing. No one’s going to be converted to Hinduism because the source of Sita Ram’s story is a 2,000-year-old religious text, the Ramayana. Basically it’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl tale: Princess Sita and Prince Rama meet and fall instantly in love, but then the demon Ravana steals Sita away, and both prince and princess must undergo many trials before they’re reunited. Thing is, they’re no ordinary mortals: Sita is an incarnation of Hindu goddess Lakshmi and Rama of Vishnu, and they’ve come to save the earth from the “dark times” occasioned by the rule of Ravana, who’s interested only in material things and power.

Two things save this simple story from simplemindedness. One is the layered music, composed by Grammy nominee Jai Uttal and realized by four dozen onstage musicians, dancers, and singers, most of them members of the Chicago Children’s Choir. The very form of Uttal’s songs, with lyrics by him and adapter-director David Kersnar, communicates a hope for unity, echoing not only East Indian harmonies, instrumentation, and singing but African and Caribbean music, tango, blues, gospel, and rap. Unlike the pop eclecticism of an Andrew Lloyd Webber score, this multiculti blend serves a true purpose, underscoring Sita Ram’s goal of promoting cultural harmony.

The other thing that rescues Sita Ram is the cast’s youth. Though the show can come across like a Disney cartoon feature, notably The Lion King, its youthfulness isn’t calculated. Sita Ram occasionally has the air of a summer-camp production–and in fact it had its beginnings at a camp for student singers and actors in 2000, when the Chicago Children’s Choir commissioned Kersnar to create a show celebrating cultural diversity. Later Uttal was invited to do the score, Natya Dance Theatre–the current incarnation of Natyakalalayam–began offering in-school residencies as part of the development process, and Krithika Rajagopalan came on board as choreographer.

The actors playing Sita and Rama are college students, and the chorus members are all still in high school. There are only two Equity performers (one of whom, dancer-singer-actor Sharon Muthu, nearly steals the show as Ravana’s evil sister). Some of the acting is a bit wooden or awkward, and it doesn’t help that Kersnar’s book is rather flat. But most often, youthful talent and ingenuity carry the day. The singing is supple, nuanced, and affecting, especially Avilla Martin’s in the crucial role of Rama. And it was brilliant to make teenagers–the choir members–the monkey armies that figure significantly in the show’s second act: clannish, silly, combative, gossipy, chirping and chattering, they’re the epitome of innocent, well-meaning, imperfect humanity. Isaiah Robinson as Hanuman, the Monkey God, plays a critical role: he’s not only the narrator but our representative (along with the Monkey Child who accompanies him). With a voice that can move from a clarion call to a whisper, this 22-year-old is the show’s standout performer and its emotional center, transforming what could seem just a love story into a cry for peace.

Oh, and the dancing. It’s cleverly integrated and cunningly theatrical: for the first time I felt the emotional edge of bharata natyam. More important, this show brings to life the simultaneously entertaining, moving, morally instructive, and visually and aurally overwhelming form of traditional Indian drama, virtually synonymous with Indian dance, which filled Hindu temples with color, movement, and sound. What takes Sita Ram beyond the realm of musical theater is its religious passion. The show’s many songs about aching to be reunited with the beloved ultimately have nothing to do with earthly marriage, which is only a metaphor for union with the divine.

When: Through 4/2: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 6:30 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan

Price: $30-$58

Info: 312-337-0665

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.