Theater: Grand Spectacle

Energetic ‘Monsoon Wedding’ keeps spirits high

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Film director Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ the story of an arranged marriage in India, is full of drama, love and laughs. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

By Charles Brousse

Anyone who has ever seen a Bollywood movie will know what to expect from Monsoon Wedding, a staged musical version of the eponymous 2001 film that is currently receiving its official world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) prior to a planned Broadway run. The details of the latter have not yet been released, but the enthusiastic reception (standing ovations and a pair of box office-driven extensions that have moved the closing date to July 9) should make it easier to raise the funds required for the transfer.

Despite the warm popular response here and to workshops around the country, however, the future for Monsoon Wedding is not entirely clear sailing. A perusal of reviews reveals that a sizable number of critics have had reservations about the musical’s chances for success in the “Big Apple.”

So, who’s right: The ordinary ticket-buyers who seem to like what they see, or reviewers who claim that this highly admired emperor has no clothes?

First, a bit of background. Bollywood combines two movie-making centers—Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay) and Hollywood—that have wide influence in their respective countries. While they play to different audiences, one inescapable characteristic that links them is a dedication to turning out films with the widest possible audience appeal, irrespective of artistic merit. For Hollywood, that means action movies, trendy stars and graphic sex. For Bollywood, the formula is usually a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, but they-eventually-find-each-other storyline that weaves its way through up-tempo scenes that feature lavish sets and colorfully costumed actors singing and dancing their hearts out.

Monsoon adheres to this basic structure, with some extra issues added to give it a semblance of topicality and intellectual heft. Lalit Verma (Jaaved Jaaferi) and his wife Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar) are upper-middle-class Indian parents who are anxious to blend old and new by arranging the marriage of their daughter Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) to satisfy tradition, but selecting Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), who lives in Texas, as the groom. Following tradition, the nuptials will be celebrated with a four-day party that will bring relatives and friends from around the world to New Delhi just before the annual monsoon rains begin.

Unfortunately for them, however, Aditi has other ideas. She’s been having an affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), her married boss, and isn’t about to be told that she must marry a complete stranger. Pressured by her parents and beginning to be drawn to Hemant despite her initial resistance, she tries to find out what Vikram’s intentions are; when he continues to be evasive, she realizes that they have no future together. Not wanting to begin marriage under a cloud of deceit, she informs Hemant about the affair. Outraged, he is determined to cancel the ceremony, but at the last minute …

Well, even if you haven’t seen the film, you can guess the rest. It’s all part of a Bollywood formula that requires that the audience leave the theater in high spirits after witnessing a whirlwind finale. This should come as no surprise, since the core creative team of director Mira Nair, Sabrina Dhawan (book), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) and Vishal Bhardwaj (composer) is well-versed in the genre. (The sole exception is veteran choreographer Lorin Latarro, who has a long list of stage credits.) In this case, Monsoon’s ending is an explosion of energy, as spectators are drawn into a happy resolution of not one, but two troubled relationship struggles.

The main reservation about Monsoon is that there isn’t much beneath all of the froth. Even the substantive “extras” previously referred to—things like the partition of India and Pakistan, the charges of child abuse leveled at Adita’s Uncle Tej (Alok Tewari) and the generational clash of cultural values—have no lasting impact. But does it really matter? The show is a splendid spectacle that leaves people feeling good about the world, if only temporarily. Seems to me that even cynical New Yorkers can benefit from that.

NOW PLAYING: Monsoon Wedding runs through July 9 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.

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