Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Monsoon Wedding"

Monsoon Wedding
Sabrina Dhawan (Book); Vishal Bhadrwaj (Music); Susan Birkenhead (Lyrics)

Members of the Cast of Monsoon Wedding
With one grand splash of kaleidoscopic colors surrounded by pulsating beats of uplifting music and bodies moving and dancing in all directions, one opening number (“Song of My Heart”) tells us all we need to know that the world premiere Monsoon Wedding is going to be a jaw-dropping, wow affair.  Overlooking the domes and spires of a Delhi skyline, workers and family members bustle about while joyously singing, “Let the music fill the air, happiness is everywhere” in busy preparation for two families separated by an ocean about to unite in their children’s matrimony.  The Indian-American groom-to-be arrives for his arranged marriage, singing with a big, goofy smile, “Everything I’ve dreamed is here.” Meanwhile, his young, Delhi-native bride-to-be is tearfully pleading with her married, TV-host boyfriend to leave his wife and marry her, saving her from this arranged, sure-to-be disaster arriving from (Can you believe it?) New Jersey. 

Oops!  Yes, in one opening number we have all the tantalizing set-up needed to hook us right back into the story that Sabrina Dhawan first introduced in her 2001 movie of the same name, Monsoon Wedding.  Once again employing the wondrous creativity and inventive genius of Mira Nair as director and now also bringing in Vishal Bhadrwaj and Susan Birkenhead respectively to create music and lyrics, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has seemingly spared no expense for this first staging of the film-turned-musical.  The colors and glamour of Arjun Bhasin’s exotic, flowing costumes are immediately eye-popping and continue to amaze scene after rainbow-hued scene.  The sets and settings designed by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams are massive in scale and wondrous in detail, constantly shifting magically and effortlessly; and they are enhanced in fun and often-funny ways by the projections of Peter Nigrini.  Lighting by Donald Holder is whimsical, adding its own color, Far Eastern feels, and wonder.  And Scott Lehrer has ensured that city, storm, and celebration sounds surround us from all directions at just the right moment. 

All in all, the premiere of Monsoon Wedding repeatedly takes us to the brink of sensory overload, ensuring our eyes are always open wide in amazement, our toes are often tapping as our bodies are gently swaying, and certainly that the grins on our faces are wider than a Cheshire Cat’s.

The only real issue with this premiere version of Monsoon Wedding is that many – but certainly not all – of Ms. Birkenhead’s lyrics are frankly too close to being banal.  Stuck in rhyming schemes better suited to children’s nursery poems, lines are too often predictable and frankly, just a bit silly.  In one otherwise delicious number by all the women of the bride’s family (“Aunties are Coming”), the clever choreography with its comedic whimsy loses some of its edge with lyrics like “Long ago I was yummy, now he calls me Mummy.”  In another number delightful in the choreography of Lorin Latarro where the married couples of the two families dance in the styles and moves of when they first met/dated (“You Will Learn”), it is hard not to roll eyes at the repeated rhymes such as “You will learn to love each other, like I did with your mother.” 

With such lines, some of the twenty-plus songs do not actually do much to enhance the musical’s progression, but serve only fill up space.  What often saves them and helps us ignore their lyrical content are all the production elements that engulf us with an array of colors and pulsing movements along with a score that is both contagiously exciting and hypnotically mesmerizing.  And then there is the fact that the songs are delivered by a cast of overall superb, near-perfection voices and talented band members (under the music direction of Greg Kenna).

In Foreground, Kuhoo Verma & Michael Maliakel
Tops among those vocal performances are the four leads who play the upstairs/downstairs love duos of the musical: Arranged-marriage pair Hemant Rai and Aditi Verman plus event planner PK Dubey and household servant Alice.  As the tall, slender Hemant, Michael Maliakel immediately establishes himself as the voice of the night.  From his opening notes, he delivers a rich clarity that causes one to lean in, not wanting to miss any of the nuances he brings in the vocal waves, tremors, and melodic glides that bridge in sound and approach his American and Indian backgrounds.  When joined by the voice of Kuhoo Verma (Aditi, his intended) – a voice that is light, young, and sweet while also blossoming into full maturity as her character’s convictions for true love solidify – the two shine in numbers like “Could You Have Loved Me” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”

As the wedding planner PK Dubey, Namit Das is both endearing and altogether hilarious with his fast, clipped talk; his wild hamming up of songs and dances; and his puppy-love-filled eyes when he is around the woman who captures his heart, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan).  Each also has a singing voice that strikes all the right chords time and again. 

Namit Das
When PK is joined by three workers (Ali Momen as Congress, Andrew Prahshad as Tameesuddin, and Levin Valayil as Lottery) in “We Are Like This Only,” the four are clown-like in their horsing around as they use every, possible body muscle to accentuate their fine harmonies in coordinated, exaggerated arm-and-leg-filled dances.  And speaking of horses, PK and Alice are joined by a cartoon-clad cluster of travelers as he chases after her train on a horse (of sorts) in a number (“Chuk, Chuk”) that is like watching live animation – especially with the thrilling projection, set, and lighting magic that is brought to bear.

The four would-be lovers who will undergo twists, turns, and traumas before solidifying their marital choices join together in one of the musical’s best numbers, “Neither Here Nor There.” Individually, as twosomes, and finally as a quartet, their voice swerve and swell in haunting, moving waves of India-induced harmonies.  The effect is emotionally stunning.

But there are many other outstanding performances among this large cast.  Foremost is Sharvari Deshpande as Ria Verma, the orphaned niece whom Aditi’s parents have raised as their own.  There is a sad and secret story within her that emanates throughout her seamless traverse of sung scales high and low -- particularly in the arresting, intense “Be a Good Girl” where travails long held deep inside burst into the open.  Her courage of revelation and the impact it has on her family – especially Aditi’s father, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi – is one of the most impressive, memorable, and importantly serious parts of this, Bollywood-like fairytale.

Palomi Ghosh & Namit Das
In a story sometimes half-sung, half-spoken, but concluding in a rich, deep voice coming from her heart, PK’s ‘nanni’ (played by Palomi Ghosh) tells of her own bout with forbidden love in “Love is Love” as PK struggles what to do as a Hindi guy who has fallen for a Christian gal.  (Ms. Ghosh is also amusing and heart-warming as a humped-over, but vigorous grandmother always on her cell prodding her grandson toward the altar -- any altar -- before she dies.) 

And it would be a sin to overlook the repeated fun and joy that Monsoon Bissell brings to her role as “Auntie” Shashi.  Her bigger-than-life presence in body, heart, laugh, and even song is yet one more reason this cast is a total winner in selling the story and delivering the production numbers of Monsoon Wedding.

So in the end, the lyrics may sometimes be silly and a few numbers may seem to be last-minute add-ons as a new musical is born; but the hypnotic music itself, the overall grandeur of the production, and the fabulous insights of the director in bringing a talented cast to stellar heights of performance make Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere maybe the biggest must-see of the season.

Rating: 4.5 E

Monsoon Wedding continue in an extended, premiere run through July 2, 2017 , in production on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s RodaTheatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

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