Bhangra Nation – Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Skylar Mabry

Book: Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew

Music and Lyrics: Sam Willmott

Director: Stafford Arima

The Birmingham Rep opens its 2024 season with a brand new, international, musical co-production. Bhangra Nation is a heart-warming tale of self-discovery set to the undeniably spirited beat of Bhangra. Audiences are bound to be shoulder-bopping in their seats and grooving to the rhythm of the dhol (a very cool double-headed drum).

Bhangra Nation is an exciting, upbeat new musical telling the story of American university students on their journey to get to the National Bhangra Competition in Chicago, Bhangra Nation. East Lansing University (of Michigan) is home to the well-polished, passionate Tigres (the show’s fiery first number is the dance which gets them to Nationals). Mary, a senior (final year student), is thrilled to be going to Nationals to honour her late mother. But when Mary suggests the team incorporate Kathak – a dance originating from outside Punjab – sophomore (second year) student Preeti passionately disagrees.

As the story unfolds, we learn about each of these girls’ upbringing with dance, finding out just why they’re so passionate. And learning about their passion makes it almost impossible to not become passionate yourself.

The show features a live orchestra (complete with an outstanding live traditional singer, Rekha), a versatile set which reveals more surprises throughout, smart touches of projection, and lively costuming. However, the star of this production is undeniably the choreography. There’s even a ballet/dream sequence in the style of the classic musicals featuring exceptional, touching storytelling through dance.

As Birmingham classes itself as the home of modern Bhangra, there is an unspoken expectation for this show to stand out, and Rujuta Vaidya’s choreography does not disappoint. This reviewer is a Bhangra novice, but judging from the audience’s cheers and whoops of approval (especially whenever the dhol comes onstage), Vaidya’s choreography, assisted by Parambeer Samrai’s consultancy, passes the test.

This vibrant co-production with The Rep is colourful, dramatic, moving, and irresistibly fun. Jena Pandya as Mary dances and sings beautifully, faces obstacles and awkward moments, and is an easily empathetic main character. Her best friend, Sunita, is gloriously played by Siobhan Athwal – who, in addition to a killer voice and dance moves, navigates the line between musical theatre cheesy and earnest performance brilliantly. Kuldeep Goswami shines through in every dance – Bhangra may be in the beat but it’s also clearly in his blood.

Bhangra Nation may be set in the US, but its story is derived from the stories of Bhangra lovers from across the world. However, the sentiments in the story hold true, both for experienced Bhangra dancers and newcomers alike. Director Stafford Arima has crafted an entertaining, enthusiastic blend of Bhangra and contemporary musical theatre. To witness musical theatre history in the making, don’t miss Bhangra Nation.

Runs until 16 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Banging Bhangra Belonging

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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