“This is a story about a struggle for freedom, like Passover,” said Michael Starobin, a Jewish orchestrator and music supervisor about his latest project, “We Live in Cairo.” “This is the story not of governments but of people struggling under government.”
The musical begins during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and goes until the 2013 military coup in which military leader Abdul Fattah al Sissi replaced elected official Mohamed Morsi. The story centers on young Egyptian student activists and their struggle for freedom amidst a series of dictatorial regimes.
The score starts out promisingly enough, with a flashy opening song entitled “Genealogy of Revolution” whose choreography is reminiscent of “Rent” and “Hair.” David Bengali’s brilliant projection and video design and Bradley King’s nuanced lighting establish Egypt’s volatile political atmosphere.
The musical’s eight performers – with various degrees of singing chops – teach the audience a song on the ability of one person to affect change. This interactive ‘lesson’ comes as part of a song that tells the story of eight artists, seekers, and free-spirits seeking friendship, love, and a free Egypt. They revel in being young during a time of change: Graffiti artist Karim and painter Hassan dance suggestively (though not holding each other) in a bromantic friendship that the former means to make more intimate. Lead activist Fadwa has no sympathy for Morsi, while Hassan feels conflicted since his family has supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
Similarities to “Rent” and “Hair” continue throughout the show. Composer Amir and photographer Layla bring to mind Roger and Mimi during the former’s guitar-accompanied love ballad. The characters sound like anti-war activists from “Hair” as they march through the streets chanting political slogans. Not everyone makes it out alive.
The show’s busy second act needs honing and a more dramatic finish, notwithstanding a hopeful ensemble that could do with the kind of contrast one finds in the closing moments of the stronger “Spring Awakening.”
Director Taibi Magar compensates for the musical book’s unevenness with generally dynamic performances. Parisa Shammir is a standout as passionate Layla, while Gil Perez-Abraham captures Hassan’s mixed feelings about the activists’ objectives. Sharif Afifi is strikingly impulsive as Karim, and Abubakr Ali has the right tentativeness as vulnerable Hany. Jakeim Hart catches Amir’s romantic sensibility. Dana Salem Omar has Fadwa’s intensity, but overplays her drive as a real leader. Broadway veteran Michael Starobin has sharply supervised Daniel Lazour’s lively mix of traditional Middle Eastern melodies and guitar-led folk rhythms. His co-orchestrations with Lazour have fine authority and tone.
“We Live in Cairo” recently took home the Richard Rogers Award, a grant given for the development of promising theater. If the Lazours want to stage this timely work Off-Broadway or on Broadway itself, they will have to make its book as much of a real home for their worthy ideas and ideals as their music.
“We Live in Cairo,” at the American Repertory Theatre at Loeb Drama Center through June 23. 617-547-8300 or amrep.org.