One of the first new musicals to emerge post-pandemic, Vanara is ambitious, dynamic and extremely well cast. It tells a timely story with insight and emotion. Whilst its score and lyrics are hardly groundbreaking and, unfortunately, mostly unmemorable, the strength of its cast ensures that Vanara is a success.
Telling the story of two warring tribes in a post-apocalyptic Earth (although where the show is set is never made clear in the musical itself), Vanara weaves together themes of forbidden love, generational conflict and ecological metaphor. The themes are sometimes a bit heavy-handed, largely due to expositionary lyrics—it’s quite hard to take someone singing “You killed my brother” seriously—and the story is not particularly original (I drew parallels with Les Miserables and The Lion King to name a few). However, the show brings together a well-told story about unity and forgiveness, with frequent moments of levity that keep the audience on-side throughout. These include an Oliver-esque song about men and women, which is a bit out of place but one of the crowd-pleasers of the night. Vanara’s plot, score and book hardly change the face of musical theatre, but do their job well.
Props must also be given to the excellent set, which conveys the forest setting sparingly but evocatively, as does the revolving stage. However, the show is truly stolen by both the play’s cast and choreography. As much of a dance show as it is a straightforward musical, Eleesha Drennan’s movement numbers are the highlight of the evening, ably performed by an exquisite chorus. Fights, dream sequences and the trading of goods between the tribes are all dramatized by fluid and dynamic bodies, and these are the images that stay in your head long after the show has ended.
The talent of the cast across the board is also a highlight. Emily Bautista carries the majority of the show and has vocal talent for days—even if this is largely funnelled into endless belting—and is matched by her male counterpart Jacob Fowler, as their vocals blend beautifully during their duets. Unfortunately, two of the strongest members of the cast, Shem Omari James and Joaquin Pedro Valdes, are underutilised, both receiving showstopping 11 o’clock numbers in the second half, but little else. Another shortfall is the transition between the dance pieces starring the highly trained chorus and those with the primary characters, whose choreography is noticeably less complex. Despite this, these issues don’t take away from the strengths of the piece—the beauty of its dances and the strength of its vocals.
Overall, Vanara is well worth seeing, even if not entirely for its score. Instead, focus on the commitment and talent of its cast, the stunning choreography, excellent set and relevant themes, which elevate a workaday musical into something truly legendary.
Words by Issy Flower