ART's "We Live in Cairo": Hopeful Arab Springs Eternal

The Cast of "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
It was an unforgettable visual image on our television screens back in 2011 when Egyptian protesters took to the streets around Tahrir Square in Cairo in an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The current production at ART in Cambridge of the play We Live in Cairo seeks to convey what was happening and what it led to, as portrayed in the form of a musical with Book, Music and Lyrics by Lebanese-American brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour. It is their sincere effort to convey the aftermath of that hope-filled Arab Spring that is at the heart of this production.

Jakeim Hart & Abubakr Ali in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

And heart, as well as hope, is what this work is all about. The winner of the 2016 prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for musical theater (previously bestowed on ART's Witness Uganda), it seeks to inform audiences that the ill-fated revolution of Cairenes against their repressive dictator “ended” with an eventual military coup and disastrous regime change. The play, billed as a musical but more correctly viewed as a piece of theater with music, wears its heart on its well-intentioned sleeve and its hope in defiance of the government that would emerge as more oppressive than the one it replaced and that the world regards as over, dead. It was a time that had its own beauty and creativity in the face of religious and militaristic powers; it was, at its fundamental existence, a celebration of “almost”, what they came close to achieving in their zeal and basic love of country.

Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

This production mirrors that celebratory “almost”, at least in its present form. There are a few moments when one can revel in the pure theatricality of its technical prowess, notably the marvelous all-enveloping Projection and Video Design by David Bengali, the orchestrations by Daniel Lazour and Broadway veteran Michael Starobin (who also serves as Musical Supervisor), as well as the intricately coordinated Lighting Design by Bradley King and Sound Design by Kai Harada. Less inspired are the Scenic and Costume Design by Tilly Grimes, which appear to be authentically drab, and the almost manic choreography by Samar Haddad King, not to mention the unfocused Direction by Taibi Magor. The pluses certainly outnumber the minuses with respect to the creative team, however.

Jakeim Hart & Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

But the problem with this intensely sincere work is that it fails to engage on several crucial elements, especially the declamatory dialog, simplistic lyrics and stereotypical characters about whom we learn little. There's a brief nod to romance between songwriter Hany (Abubakr Ali) and photographer Layla (Parisa Shahmir), and even more briefly between street artists Karim (Sharif Afifi) and Hassan (Gil Perez-Abraham). The other principal roles, fellow songwriter Amir (Jakeim Hart) and activist Fadwa (Dana Saleh Omar), as well as two actors who are identified as the “Ensemble” (Waseem Alzer and Layan Elwazani), are all obviously committed and talented, even though not given much to fill in about their parts. Unfortunately they aren't sufficiently differentiated from one another (which is also true of the unidentified musical numbers) to make one's involvement as complete as it should be.

The production, to be performed through June 23rd, gives still more evidence of ART's commitment to portrayals of victims of social injustice who merit our attention. With perhaps more concentration on character development and less attempt at presenting itself as a musical polemic, this work might be on a better path. At the moment, it's promising, hopeful and honest.

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