If Jesus Christ can be a superstar, why can’t Buddha be a hepcat? The creative crew at the Overtime Theater poses this question with its new show, Buddha Swings!, which sets the story of Siddhartha to 1940s big-band swing music, and the answer is pure de-lightenment.
The production fits snug as a bug in a rug within the Overtime’s mission: original (or adapted) hour-long one-act plays. It starts with a bang and ends in a flash — I hardly realized the hour (49 minutes, to be precise) had passed. But the music and the moves lingered throughout my night.
Were it not for the title, the audience might at first assume this to be a “square” telling of the Buddha’s story; ancient chanting drones through the sound system as people take their seats, and a sparse, backlit set depicts a palace looming over the stage. Then the actors hit the floor, and the palace becomes a club. In a neat connection to big-band legend Sid Phillips of “Boogie Man” fame, we’re introduced to young “Sidd” Gautama with a rousing rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” His home of Kapilavastu is a great rhythmic replacement for “Company B.”
This is only the first of several numbers that spoof actual big-band songs, with the lyrics reworked to tell Sidd’s story. Much like the road to enlightenment, taking a classic and giving it the Weird Al treatment has many potential pitfalls. Bad examples include forced rhymes and shoehorned words, where the emphasis is placed on the wrong syllable in order to make the cadence work. Thankfully, writer/director John Poole dances deftly around those snares, and it’s a thrill to hear.
And watch. The numbers are choreographed with clear affection for the era, and we get more than just a dance-floor showcase. These are fully integrated routines that both illustrate and enhance the lyrics. The “chorus” of Buddha’s followers, who shift back and forth between action and narration, command the audience’s attention with high-energy performances. The hoofing gets literal when they trade off in the role of Kanthaka the horse, who advises the Buddha-to-be and also addresses the audience directly. This narrative structure offers each chorus member an equal share of the spotlight; there are no “extras” here.
By way of exposition, the crew makes excellent use of video with an old-fashioned newsreel that provides period authenticity as well as a more modern connection. While watching a clip of Prince Siddhartha’s father holding a press conference about his son’s future as the next great holy man, I couldn’t help thinking of Joe Jackson and the man who would be King of Pop. The cult of celebrity is a phenomenon that spans time and space — much like the archetypical journey of the heroes whose stories we follow faithfully, whether in temples or on TMZ.
And “to be a hero,” one chorus member chimes, “you need a certain kind of swing.” In the role of Buddha, Roy Thomas moves comfortably between both ends of the character’s arc, conveying both the certainty of his quest and the uncertainty he feels along the way. He’s perfectly cast for appearance, with the shaved head and placid expression of a Shaolin master. It’s difficult to stand out as the leader among so many talented cast members, but Thomas’s sure-footed timing keeps him “centered.” Julie Vaquera and Sarah Bading anchor the chorus with strong vocal performances as the “Bo” sisters (short for Bodhisattva, one presumes).
The script jumps nimbly back and forth between production numbers, action scenes, narration, and even commentary, breaking down the fourth wall to name check everyone from Joseph Campbell to Pokémon. The result is not only a rollicking good time, it’s a memorable primer to an ancient philosophical tradition. Religion 101 has never been this much fun.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.