‘The Princess & the Pauper – A Bollywood Tale’
Through March 18
4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda
$10 and up
Recommended for ages 5 and up
Lookalikes swapping identities is a tried-and-true plotline. Imaginations are reliably fired by accounts of peasants donning jeweled crowns or bumpkins slipping into city cousins’ slicker duds. Typically in these stories after having experienced the highlife, the more relatable character returns to hearth and — be it ever so humble — home.
With “The Princess & the Pauper: A Bollywood Tale,” Imagination Stage presents a new musical inspired by Bollywood and adapted from the Mark Twain classic. But this doppelganger story is moved to long-ago India and its doubles are female: the unhappy Princess Razia (a wonderfully entitled Anjna Swaminathan) and Rani (Alexandra Palting), the daughter of an impoverished seamstress.
Penned by playwright Anu Yadav and staged by Janet Stanford, the fun and folklore-filled adventure with a social conscience and Bollywood beat, unfolds clearly and like so much Bombay cinema, its actors regularly break out into song (compliments of mononynous composer Aks). The score ranges from ballads to boisterous musical numbers performed by the entire five-person, delightfully committed cast. Yadav’s play was commissioned as part of Imagination Stage’s ongoing effort to create new work for underrepresented part of the community, in this case South Asians.
Shy Rani lives meagerly with her devoted, hardworking mother Hema (Sarah Corey) and pesky, consumptive little sister Zoya (Nora Achrati). But despite strained circumstances, this family is preternaturally perky. When the larder is bare, they get a real kick out of pretending to eat imaginary royal mangoes. Yet beneath her sunny disposition, Rani knows it’s not right for the people to go without while a parasitic ruling class enjoys plenty. Her feelings are shared by handsome young family friend Nassim (Jordan Moral).
Meanwhile, over at the palace, Princess Razia is generally miserable. Spoiled, willful and cranky, Razia lives lavishly under the watch of her loyal servant Fatima (Emily Madden), and though wanting for nothing, she still longs to find freedom moving among commoners beyond the palace walls.
By chance, Rani and Razia meet in the fabled royal mango garden. Stunned by their mutual resemblance, Razia persuades Rani to trade clothes and lives. And so, the adventure begins with all the ensuing laughs and lessons associated with each young woman encountering a new word to which she is both unsuited and unfamiliar. It’s a course in inequities and how the other half lives.
Villainy comes in the vainglorious form of the Wazir, a high-ranking politico (played with campy relish by out actor Jimmy Mavrikes) who with the help of a mesmerizing jewel, connives to steal the late Sultan’s throne away from the young Princess. Mavrikes is poised to star opposite Lukas James Miller in Signature Theatre’s upcoming “Girlfriend,” a musical about young same-sex love.
Throughout the two-act show, the cast interacts with the population of the Sultanate (i.e. the audience) asking us to help with the harvest, chant for the freedom of the wrongly imprisoned and ultimately to repeat the Princess’s revered late mother’s slogan: “In the divine our hearts entwine!”
It’s a good-looking production with a first-rate design team. Emily Lotz creates an exotic, ancient locale using traditional Indian architecture comprised of graceful arches and elegant latticework strikingly lit by Christopher Brusberg. Kristen P. Ahern’s costumes are colorful and transporting.
And it all ends with a delightful twist.