A scene from Monsoon Wedding which is at Berkeley Rep through July 2. Photo: Kevin Berne

From Mira Nair’s Golden Globe-nominated 2001 movie comes her world premiere musical version of Monsoon Wedding, a big-hearted earnest extravaganza of a four-day Punjabi Indian wedding, with all the emotion, color and drama that goes with it. Just as Fiddler on the Roof has universal appeal, so too does Monsoon Wedding, a sumptuously costumed and staged family saga of the arranged marriage between a modern Indian bride and groom.

As the production (direction by Mira Nair, book by Sabrina Dhawan) begins, the audience is invited to the wedding by the proud, loving, and long-suffering father of the bride, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi), who has dug deeply into his pockets to pay for the celebration. We quickly become acquainted with the various extended family members, whose personality traits are easy to appreciate and enjoy at the superficial level at which we experience them.

Not only is the bride, Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) leaving her family and country to live with her New Jersey/Indian husband, Hemant (Michael Maliakel), but she is also leaving her married lover. Hemant, culturally stuck between India and the United States and fitting comfortably into neither country, has chosen an Indian bride to bridge the gap. But he may have found a true soul mate in Aditi, if he’s up to the challenge.

Cousin Ria, (Sharvari Deshpande), an unmarried social worker who lives with Lalit’s family, is keeping a dark secret that threatens to unravel the celebration, not to mention the entire family. She provides much of the drama of the play, but her sub-plot doesn’t become apparent until late in the second act, and is resolved too quickly and with too little exploration and angst.

The hustling entrepreneur wedding planner, PK Dubey (Namit Das) and the family maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan) form an appealingly sweet romantic pair, presenting a view of the upwardly mobile lower classes. The second act scene in which PK pursues Alice’s train while on horseback is just terrific. In fact, the whole second act is more engaging and flows more fluently than the slow-paced expository first act.

The skillfully directed Monsoon Wedding is awash (pun intended) in music and dance. Many of the songs (music by Vishal Bhardwaj, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) are tuneful, some straight-up Broadway, others with a Bollywood sound. Although some are forgettable with uninspired lyrics, the very funny Aunties are Coming is a showstopper. All the actors are first-rate and talented vocalists, who know how belt out a song, especially Sharvari Deshpande, who passionately sings Ria’s song, Be a Good Girl, but she could deliver even more. Groom Michael Maliakel sings tenderly and sweetly. The unseen seven-piece live band is outstanding. The lively dancing (choreography by Lorin Latarro) is infectious, but, I was hoping for a bit more Bollywood choreography. Perhaps a larger stage might have helped.

It’s unusual for Berkeley Rep to stage musical theater, and, with 20 actors and a live band, this is the Rep’s largest presentation in its history. It is quite a challenge and Berkeley Rep certainly pulled it off. The whole production, including the costumes (Arjun Bhasin) and scenic design (Mikiko Suzuki Macadams) is stylish and sophisticated.

Rumors are that Monsoon Wedding has Broadway aspirations, but success there is extremely challenging. Berkeley audiences may know that the Rep’s delightful 2015 production, Amélie, didn’t last long in the Big Apple. Similar to Amélie, many of the necessary elements for a New York-level hit are present here. Yet, more work is needed — honing the plot to its roots, deepening the story, varying the music and dance, adding more wit and sophistication to the book and adjusting the pacing. Yet, as it stands today, Monsoon Wedding is a welcome respite, an effervescent and entertaining musical. 

Monsoon Wedding is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through July 2. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep’s website.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...