Stormy weather

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 24, 2017
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Newlyweds played by Kuhoo Verma and Michael Maliakel are<br>dancing in the rain in a new musical based on the movie "Monsoon<br>Wedding" having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin<br>Berne
Newlyweds played by Kuhoo Verma and Michael Maliakel are
dancing in the rain in a new musical based on the movie "Monsoon
Wedding" having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin
Berne

The leading players of the romantic subplot in "Monsoon Wedding" get the final bows, and that's appropriate for the interest they generate, but not quite right in terms of what should be stoking our involvement in the new musical based on the 2001 movie. The subjects of the titular wedding don't generate much heat as a couple, a problem that evolves from both script and casting issues. Even so, while their arranged nuptials drives the plot, this is a big fat Indian wedding so filled with relatives gathering for the union of families that the program has a flowchart to help sort out the characters. A weak truss, even in such a seemingly pivotal position, is not something that will topple this merry muddle of a musical.

Celebrated Indian American film director Mira Nair, whose other credits include "Salaam Bombay!" and "Mississippi Masala," began thinking about turning "Monsoon Wedding" into a stage musical not long after the film became a box-office hit. It was even announced that a Broadway run would commence in 2014, but it is only now coming to life at Berkeley Rep in one of the most massive productions in its history. It is certainly a spectacle, at least often enough, with Bollywood sensibilities combining with an array of Broadway conventions. Unfortunately, Sabrina Dhawan, in streamlining her screenplay for the stage, has sanded away the grittier aspects of New Delhi society and added easy-laugh cliches about both India and America.

The groom and his family moved to America years ago, and are Westernized enough to feel superior to the customs and amenities back in the old world. And yet not so much that the notion of an arranged marriage isn't appealing not only to his parents, but to the prospective groom himself. The bride's family is sufficiently modernized not to force a marriage on Aditi; she's willing to buy into the plan as an escape from a hopeless relationship with a slick television personality with a wife at home. There is a recurring parallel love story between the fast-talking low-budget wedding planner and the family maid, with class distinctions between the help and their employers moderated from the movie, and theirs is the relationship that creates the most sparks.

Indian composer Vishal Bhardwaj and Broadway lyricist Susan Birkenhead have crafted a score that mixes both conventional musical theater sounds with percussive Indian numbers, with the two often overlapping. Not all of the moments that get a song necessarily need one, and a couple of the more powerful ballads don't reach full potential because of undercooked endings. But overall, the music is an enjoyable part of the proceedings, abetted by a seven-piece band with an ability to deal with multiple musical styles.

With several exceptions, with some of the deficiencies accelerated by how the characters are drawn, the cast is able to sell the material. Though his singing voice strays off-key, Jaaved Jaaferi is a compelling presence as the overwrought father of the bride, with Mahira Kakkar bringing nattering warmth to his wife. For some reason, a feisty granny-type has been cast with a young actress (Palomi Ghosh) in unconvincing wig and makeup, killing much of what should be surefire humor in her dialogue and big song. Sharvari Deshpande brings convincing intensity in the role of the bride's cousin with a dark family secret that is eventually revealed, and Rohan Gupta provides lively comic relief as the obviously gay but-not-quite-out son. Andrew Prashad doesn't make much of an impression as the groom's father, but Krystal Kiran as his mother doesn't plump up a thinly drawn character of someone who has become an ugly American.

And then there are the lovers, albeit with passions that must be laboriously achieved. Kuhoo Verma as the conflicted bride-to-be is both attractive and appealing, but Michael Maliakel has the visage of a beanpole and the delivery of a stick, but with a strong singing voice that provides partial compensation. Perhaps the most magnetic performance is provided by Anisha Nagarajan as the family's overworked and underappreciated maid, who suddenly becomes a goddess in the eyes of the upwardly mobile but comically unreliable wedding planner given dimension by Namit Das.

Nair's direction, which often becomes one with Lorin Latarro's choreography, delves into numerous stylistic territories that can be capriciously employed. But their unpredictability is itself a diversion, as reality gives way to stylized fantasies that have no relationship to anything else that has happened in the production.

Big-league Broadway producer Margo Lion has been shepherding "Monsoon Wedding," and Berkeley Rep took up her offer to give the new musical a first spin. Its desired ultimate destination is obvious, and the current production may provide the clues to achieving that goal. Many of the pieces are already there, and the work is now in getting them better to fit together.

 

"Monsoon Wedding" will run at Berkeley Rep through July 2. Tickets are $40-$125. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.