"There's so much music at an Indian wedding! It makes perfect sense as a musical," said director Mira Nair when she was trying to sell Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone on her idea to adapt her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding into a stage show. The project, now in the making for 10 years, had its world premiere opening night on Friday, and it succeeds in taking the story of a rocky romance between two modern young people about to submit to an arranged marriage, and the chaos of bringing their families together for three days of celebrations in New Delhi, and turning it into an exuberant, infectious, and highly musical musical that seems pre-destined for a trip to Broadway.
Nair assembled an international cast, drawing from the world of classical Indian singing in both India and the US, to play the Verma and Rai families, and there is plentiful singing and dancing talent on stage. The show opens with a joyous ensemble number, "Song of My Heart," that transports the audience to the bustling scene of wedding preparations as father Lalit (Indian TV and film star Jaaved Jaaferi), mother Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar), brother Varun (Rohan Gupta), and wedding planner PK Dubey (Namit Das) are stringing lights and wondering where their daughter and bride-to-be Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) could be. From there we are introduced to auntie and uncle Shashi and CL Chawla (Monsoon Bissell and Sorab Wadia), as well as the handsome groom Hemant (Michael Maliakel) and his family, who have all flown in from America. Having grown up mostly in the States, Hemant is eager to have a traditional wedding with a good Indian girl, while Aditi, who is eager to start a new life abroad, turns out to have a secret boyfriend, TV personality Vikram (Ali Momen), who is married.
What follows, in a script adapted by original screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan, is a pleasantly formulaic, comedic family drama with a subplot involving PK Dubey's sudden love for a servant girl, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan), whom [SPOILER] he will marry before the show is done.
The songs by composer Vishal Bhardwaj and lyricist Susan Birkenhead are tinged with pop and loaded with traditional Indian and Bollywood sounds, making for a score that seems fresh and unique in the context of American musical theater. Highlights include the aunties' group number in Act 1, "Aunties Are Coming," the dual love ballad "Neither Here Nor There" in which Maliakel's fantastic voice gets to shine, and the Act 1 closer "Chunari, Chunari." Also, a comedic number in Act 2 in which PK tries to woo Alice off a train, "Chuk Chuk," is a particular delight.
The elaborate and modular set design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams is extremely impressive, as are the costumes by Arjun Bhasin, who also did costumes for the Monsoon Wedding film.
And while there are a few troughs in the plot of the play and a song or two that might want to be cut, the musical feels polished and fully formed, and ready to dazzle audiences beyond the Bay Area which it no doubt will, and this run was already extended into July before previews had even ended. It's a transporting and generous show too, strewn with the abundant colors and chaos of India itself.
Nair said in an interview that it was "just kind of nice to be making an antidepressant" in this moment in time, and indeed she did. Monsoon Wedding is full of vivid distraction, great music, and exhilarating, farcical fun aspects that should be part of every wedding, but all too often are not.
Monsoon Wedding plays through July 9 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here, and if you are under the age of 30, be sure to request the special discount.