The little mouse with big ears is back, embarking on his heroic quest in “The Tale of Despereaux,” the PigPen Theatre Company’s new musical adaptation at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
First introduced in a novel by Kate Dicamillo, followed by a Universal Pictures film, Despereaux now stars in this rollicking, eminently theatrical 95-minute show, which opened Monday in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.
It’s set in a fairy-tale castle, where Despereaux and his fellow mice mingle uneasily with humans. Then tragedy strikes: the queen dies under mysterious circumstances, and the grief-stricken king declares rats the enemy. But the king’s daughter, Princess Pea, favors Despereaux, who vows to become her knight and restore harmony to the kingdom.
Instead, Despereaux is banished to the castle dungeon, where he meets the mysterious Roscuro — or Chiaroscuro, a rat living in darkness but longing for the light.
Directed by Marc Bruni and PigPen Theatre Co. on Jason Sherwood’s two-story set, the Pigpen players bring the tale to life in storybook fashion. It opens in a library, with the Librarian (Ryan Melia) setting the tone with snappy dialogue, sight gags and puppets (the mice are adorable.) The cast, playing guitars, keyboard, banjo and percussion, accompanies the narrative as a roving acoustic indie band.
The songs are the show’s connective tissue, and there are quite a few of them. They may not be the kind that an audience walks out singing, but they advance the story effectively, and several are quite lovely: “Honey Sound,” sung by Despereaux, is aptly sweet, and “With a Needle and Thread” is a nice duet for Princess Pea and the servant Miggery Sow. “We Know Better” yielded some delightful patter from Princess siblings Furlough and Merlot.
It’s all very fluid — and often quite funny — in the cast’s well-tuned performances. Dorcas Leung is a peppy, endearing Despereaux, delivering the mouse’s songs with ease and energy. Yasmeen Sulieman is an assertive Princess, and John Rapson makes a forceful Roscuro. Arya Shahi plays the King with a sorrowful edge. Betsy Morgan is expressive in the role of Miggery Sow, and Dan Weschler gets laughs as the Stained-Glass Knight. Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Matt Nuernberger round out the ensemble.
With its indelible characters and fairy-tale setting, “The Tale of Despereaux” is billed as a family-friendly show, and it’s easy to see why kids might love it. But its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation speak to all ages.
“My fairy tale may be ridiculous, but at least some of it is true,” says Despereaux. Like all good fairy tales, the heroic quest of this one little mouse is steeped in humanity.
The Tale of Despereaux
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. most Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Saturdays-Sundays, plus 7 p.m. Dec. 10 and Dec. 17; closes Jan. 5
Tickets: $35 to $100
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org