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Berkeley Rep’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ precipitates a path to Broadway

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Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s premiere of “Monsoon Wedding” has a similar joyful feel to the movie on which it’s based. (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

More than marigolds rained down on the sari- and sherwani-bedecked cast at the opening of the musical “Monsoon Wedding” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There was also a celebratory release of joy, accomplishment and — among the many similarly clad audience members — a sense of arrival.

It has been a long journey for Mira Nair’s Golden Globe-nominated 2001 film, and Nair, along with writer Sabrina Dhawan and costume designer Arjun Bhasin, reprise their creative roles here.

High among life’s most stressful events, weddings are rich creative fodder, whether from the perspective of the individual participants or the cultural overlay of a big-fat-(insert ethnic or class tradition)-wedding.

All the elements that made Nair’s music-filled film a popular hit have transferred. The extended family, traditional vs. 21st-century values conflicts, and the secrets revealed are all on the Berkeley stage.

Changes? The bride’s brothers have been merged into a single, gay, not quite slacker character, and the romantic sub-plot between the initially feckless wedding planner (Namit Das) and the family maid (Anisha Nagarajan) has been elevated. The latter development is welcome since the chemistry between the beanpole groom (Michael Maliakel) and his wannabe-runaway bride (Kuhoo Verma) needs a charge.

The same could be said for a lot of the production which still needs work to become the very, very possible hit it is hoped to be.
From the perspective of a cultural outsider, one of the reasons to see “Monsoon Wedding” is as an experience beyond what you know. The film achieved this, but the musical, despite its ample exuberance and showmanship, feels very homogenized and familiar.

The score lacks a cohesive identity and should find a more defining voice. Songs run a gamut from South Asian and Bollywood tones to power ballads and Broadway shtick. “Aunties are Coming” being the best example of the latter, and “Love is Love,” a strongly-staged production number about the 1947 partition of India, is great theater, but possibly for another show.

The engaging cast works hard to flesh out a lot of stock characters. Das and Nagarajan shimmer with humor and romance. What patriarch Javeed Jaaferi lacks in vocal prowess is covered by warmth and some great dancing. Mahira Kakkar and Krystal Kiran are stellar mothers-in-law. Sharvari Deshpande brings drama and humor as adopted daughter Ria.

In its current form, “Monsoon Wedding” is a joyful, entertaining, if slightly unfocused “Mamma Mia: Delhi Edition.” It will be interesting to see what it becomes by the time it reaches Broadway.

Monsoon Wedding
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 2
Tickets: $35 to $125
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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