The new musical Monsoon Wedding is a huge hit for Berkeley Rep, with critical acclaim, sold-out houses, and several run extensions. Mira Nair and screenwriter-turned-bookwriter Sabrina Dhawan’s adaptation of their 2001 movie is also a case study in how not to rework a film for the musical stage. Nair and Dhawan appear not to understand what people responded to in the movie: its energy and color, its essential optimism in the face of life’s difficulties, its sense of family and community, its warmth and humor. Updating the material from 2001 to 2017, the creators attempt to deepen their characters by giving them modern problems and political issues, which don’t do anything to reveal personality, but certainly deaden any life and liveliness that existed in the movie.
The conceit of the play is that the audience are guests–American guests–invited by the groom’s family (who reside in the U.S.) to the wedding, so of course we have to have knowing asides about American immigration policy. Lalit Verma (the distinguished actor Javeed Jaaferi, who demonstrates a lifetime of performing technique, but never seems at home in this show), begins the evening by welcoming the audience to his daughter’s wedding while gently chiding us for the Trumpian mess we find ourselves in. In the movie, the fact that the groom-to-be lived in America was just a given. There was no examination of the clash of cultures or the Plight of the Immigrant. Now the groom Hemant sings a whole song, “Neither Here nor There,” about the disconnectedness of living in America. (Because a song list is not provided in the program, I’m guessing at the title.) And the play stops dead while we hear him sing it. (As Hemant, Michael Miliakel, is handsome and has a great voice, but he’s stiff and ill-at-ease as an actor.)
In the movie the only obstacle that stood between the domestic Alice and the wedding planner Dubey (who equate to the rustics in a Shakespearean comedy) was their intense shyness around each other. Now, she’s a Christian who won’t convert to Hinduism to marry him. He fears that his mother will frown upon the match, but then mom sings an endless song made more endless by a 10-minute re-enactment of the partitioning of India and Pakistan (her youthful lover was forever separated from her by the schism), to tell him not to worry about it.
Nair and Dhawan eliminate some characters and combine others. Because actors have to play double and triple parts, the two elderly women in the play are played by young women wearing grey wigs and walking stooped over in caricatures of old age, diminishing the sense of inter-generational community. The story’s villain, Tej, was a close family friend in the movie. Here, he’s Lalit’s brother-in-law, uncle to Ria, the bride’s cousin who was also raised by Lalit and his wife. This places more emphasis on the key conflict in the script, which is further underlined by having Ria’s revelation of wrong-doing by Tej incorporate not one song, but two. (I almost groaned aloud as the audience clapped when Tej received his come-uppance. The audience gets to pat itself on the back for being on the right side of things, which is never a sign of good theatre.) Everything that was delicate in the movie is now made obvious and heavy.
Nair’s directing is also a problem. She’s never helmed a musical before and her inexperience shows. Songs aren’t integrated organically and you often have to wait for the company to shuffle off stage at the end of a song, like the bad chorus staging so prevalent in opera of past decades. There’s also a puzzling use of aerials in the show. Alice and Dubey enter from either side of the stage, cables descend from the flies, they each strap the other in, they go up, they come down. And that’s it. The effect is more elevator ride than ecstatic weightlessness. (I didn’t like the wire-work in La-La Land, either, but I at least understood what they were trying to achieve.) The film used music, mostly folk songs, and dance much more freely and much more joyfully. Vishal Bhardwaj’s unmemorable score interrupts and slows the action down and underlines the melodrama. And Susan Birkenhead’s (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam) lyrics rarely rise above the banal. Lorin Latarro’s choreography lies uneasily between the naturalism of the movie and the stylization of a Bollywood production, but the actors don’t have the dancing skills to pull off Bollywood, and the movement doesn’t excite.
The film’s dominant colors were the oranges of saffron, curry, and marigold, and the entire movie was suffused in it. At one point Dubey is using white cloth in the tent he’s building for the wedding, and Lalit upbraids him for it—“This isn’t a funeral!”— insisting he use orange instead. The play’s dominant color is sky-blue, placid and calming. Orange eventually shows up, but only as an accent. (Mikiko Suzuki McAdams did the impressive yet wrong-headed set design.)
The 18-member cast works hard, but with one exception, you see the work, and you don’t see the joy. The exception is the astonishing Sharvari Deshpande as Ria, who’s completely at home on the stage, whether singing or acting. She alone in the cast makes the stylization of musical theatre seem lived-in and real.
Nair, an undeniably talented filmmaker, astonishingly appears not to trust or understand her accomplishments with the film, and she crushes its spirit by including all manner of modern ills and issues in the musical, to its—and our—detriment. In the movie, the characters were people with problems. In the musical, the characters are their problems. The soufflé Nair cooked up in 2001 has fallen flat.
Monsoon Wedding has been extended through July 16 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St, Berkeley, 94704. More information is available at berkeleyrep.org.