Review: Swirling ‘Monsoon Wedding’ premieres in Berkeley
“Monsoon Wedding” in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne /Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Rain is definitely in the forecast in the overheated world of “Monsoon Wedding” but this is a swirling typhoon of sound and color that tries to wash the blues away.
Director Mira Nair has steeped this effervescent if uneven musical in the spirit of her hit 2001 film, but the show never feels like an imitation. Nair harnesses the tools of the theater, it’s frenetic immersive energy, to give the piece freshness and wit, but the unwieldy musical hasn’t quite found its rhythm.
In its highly-anticipated world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading to Broadway, “Monsoon” gets off to a sluggish start, suffering from haphazard pacing in Act 1, but by the closing number you are swept up in a lively fusion of tragic human flaws and cathartic Bollywood giddiness. There’s a sweetness and lightness to the production that’s intoxicating even if the ebullient ending doesn’t feel entirely earned at this point.
Welcome to a big fat Punjabi wedding, where stormy weather is the least of the drama. In a stage bedecked by marigolds, a family converges in Delhi for a four-day party culminating in an arranged marriage between a tony Indian family’s only daughter and a man she’s never met.
KEVIN BERNE/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE<br />Anisha Nagarajan stars in “Monsoon Wedding,” a musical adaptation of the hit 2001 wedding, gets its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
The groom Hemant (a one-note Michael Maliakel) is Indian but he lives in New Jersey, plus the bride Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) is having an affair with a married man and her family is running low on dough. They must also contend with religious unrest, sexual abuse, class tension and the perversity of a land of brown people who worship fair skin.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s infectious score and bewitching choreography by Lorin Latarro (“Waitress”) invoke traditional tropes while embracing the pulse of the now. Arjun Bhasin’s costumes, a shimmering sea of silk and sequins in saffron hues, never cease to dazzle the eye.
Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Vanity Fair”) orchestrates the epic bustle of 20 actors with grace, and there are countless gorgeous tableaux, but the show needs to be distilled into its essential parts. The lyrics (Susan Birkenhead) don’t often rise to the level of the melodies and the book (Sabrina Dhawan) doesn’t dig deep enough into the shadows that threaten these characters.
Act 1 also feels overstuffed and too many of the songs don’t reveal character or push the story forward. To make matters worse the secondary love story, between the wedding planner Dubey (a nicely deadpan Namit Das) and the maid Alice (Anisha Nagarajan) is far more interesting than the main romance, which feels generic.
“Monsoon Wedding” in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Only when the story swells to its climax does “Monsoon” find its sound and fury. A wildly cheeky train courtship scene is priceless as is a booty-shaking “Aunties are Coming” number.
Ironically the most poignant number of the night is a reverie from Dubey’s grandmother Naani (a tender turn by Palomi Ghosh) reliving the horrors of Partition, when Britain divided India and created Pakistan, in a song, “Love is Love,” that deepens the musical with a sense of history and context.
Too often the dark themes here don’t cut as close to the bone as they should. Moments that should be wrenching feel downplayed, despite some nuanced performances by Jaaved Jaaferi as Aditi’s father Lalit and Sharvari Deshpande as Ria, the cousin who exposes a dark family secret. Deshpande rivets in her aching “Be a Good Girl” song but her revelation should hit harder amid the general frolic.
The tragedy is so muted it undercuts the charge of the ending, a brassy Bollywood showstopper that had the opening night audience on its feet. The cleansing euphoria of the rainswept finale would be all the more infectious if “Monsoon” fully embraced its moments of gloom.
By Sabrina Dhawan, Vishal Bhardwaj and Susan Birkenhead, adapted from the motion picture and directed by Mira Nair; presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: July 2
Where: Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre; 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$125; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org