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Berkeley Theater Review: ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ the Musical

Variety logo Variety 5/21/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Still Mira Nair’s best-liked and most popular feature, the 2001 “Monsoon Wedding” was the kind of deliberate crowdpleaser that duly pleased even as you could plainly spy the mechanics that worked toward that purpose. As an ensemble seriocomedy with a celebratory air, it seemed a promising prospect for stage musicalization. Unfortunately in its bow at the Bay Area’s Berkeley Rep, the long-aborning new tuner — originally announced for a 2014 Broadway bow — is all grinding gears and very little magic, despite returning contributions from some of the film’s major creatives, including Nair. Loud, broad and close to charmless at present, it’s a clunky contraption that will require considerable fine-tuning before facing tougher NYC audiences, let alone critics.

Though Nair began her career in theater (both in India and the U.S.), she does not appear to have worked in that medium for decades, and “Monsoon” screenwriter Sabina Dhawan makes her stage debut with the book here. Their respective rustiness and inexperience is all too palpable in an evening that feels like a brash but cloddish welding of ill-matched parts beside the film’s smooth, mosaic-like assembly.

The basics are unchanged: The Vermas, a well-off Brahmin family in Delhi, is abuzz preparing for the lavish wedding between daughter Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) and U.S.-raised Hermant (Michael Maliakel). It’s an arranged marriage, though the two as-yet-barely-acquainted young people seem well enough suited to one another: She’s not averse to either domestic stability or relocation, while he’s smitten with the idea of a spouse well-rooted in the hereditary culture he’s only known at a distance. What no one knows is that Aditi is on the rebound from an affair with a married man, caddish TV station co-worker Vikram (Ali Momem), and may not be finished with that involvement yet.

Meanwhile, preparations and arriving guests keep propelling the event forward even as Aditi questions whether she can go through with it. Verma patriarch Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi) rides herd on the laborers led by perpetually excuse-making wedding planner Dubey (Namit Das), who becomes distracted pinning his own belated marital hopes on the family’s pretty servant Alice (Anisha Nagarajan).

Orphaned niece Ria (Sharvari Deshpande), whom Lalit and wife Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar) raised, is unsettled by the glad-handing return of Uncle Tej (Alok Tewari), who molested her as a child — and whom she fears may now be interfering with another young relation. Subsidiary figures frequently lost in the crowd here include various bickering, competitive aunties, one covetous granny (Palomi Ghosh) and one very gay son (Rohan Gupta, conspicuously aged-up from the film’s pre-adolescent) who irks Lalit no end.

Nair and Dhawan diverge from their cinematic blueprint most conspicuously in heightening a crisis so the first act can end with the wedding temporarily called off, and expanding the Dubey-Alice thread so it carries near-equal narrative weight. These are useful changes, but otherwise the stage “Monsoon” struggles to translate the source material of many interwoven strands into the bolder panels of musical theater, where intercutting is not so easy. It results in blander, broader characterizations, and clumsy transitions between setpieces that rarely lift off as they’re meant to.

While a story as semi-farcically complicated as this one might benefit from almost-continuous music, veteran Bollywood composer and sometime writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj instead opts for near-incessant but very much stand-alone songs (some quite brief) in a range of styles that stubbornly refuse to connect with one another. There’s shlock-pop balladry (“Neither Here Nor There,” “Could You Have Loved Me”), generic Broadway comedy “showstopper” (“Aunties Are Coming,” a dismal stab at mild raunch), plus pallid scents of ersatz jazz (“You Will Learn”), reggae (“We Are Like This Only”), even polka (“Gore, Gore”). If Dhawan’s spoken dialogue is pedestrian, Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics are often straight-up banal, down to the vapid insistence that “Love Is Love” in a number whose political content (involving the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan) feels incongruous in an otherwise thoroughly apolitical show.

In music, lyrics and elsewhere, there’s a sense of “exotic” foreign culture, already somewhat simplified for wider audience in the multinational coproduction of the film, rendered so “accessible” for Americans that there’s almost no authentic flavor left, just a labored high spirits. Bhardwaj’s score is most successful when it and Greg Kenna’s seven-piece band hew closest to indigenous sounds. That element, and two of Nair’s better staging ideas, make the second act’s back-to-back “Chuk Chuk” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out” relative highlights. But then the show descends into crude melodrama as Ria finally confronts Taj. That event lent the lightweight movie a certain depth, but here it grinds things to a heavy-handed halt.

Working in broad strokes, the actors are competent yet seldom get the chance to demonstrate much individual personality. It’s a strong cast vocally, however, with the notable exception of pitch- and tempo-resistant Jaaferi. The pastel skyline backdrop and mobile parts of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set design, as well as Peter Nigrini’s occasional projections, feel like place-holding devices in a show that hasn’t yet found the sensuous unity of visual packaging it needs, save in the vibrant silks of costume designer Arjun Bhasin, another alumnus from the film.

Perspective at the performance reviewed — on the far side near a bank of stage speakers — made it difficult at times to judge the big-picture effectiveness of Nair’s blocking and Lorin Latarro’s choreography (or even the somewhat canned-sounding audio mix). But at close quarters, both appeared in serious need of an outside polish. Theoretically, a musical adaptation of “Monsoon Wedding” is still a good idea. What’s currently onstage at Berkeley Rep, however, barely begins to realize that potential.

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