Much like it did in seasons past with productions like The Wild Bride and The Composer Is Dead, Berkeley Rep has brought a jolly, family-friendly bit of entertainment to its main stage for this holiday season complete with a few puppets.
The show is called The Tale of Despereaux, and as we shared with you a couple weeks back, it's an original show from New York's PigPen Theatre that comes to Berkeley from San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where it had its premiere over the summer. It's based on the Newbery Medal-winning 2003 children's book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, and it's the story of a young mouse named Despereaux, a seemingly villainous rat named Roscuro, and a kingdom struck by tragedy with a king looking for someone or something to blame.
That blame lands on the rodent kingdom, and on soup — as the story goes, the queen who had a weak heart dies after having a rat fall from a chandelier and into her soup. Thereafter, the king outlaws soup in the kingdom, and declares all rats to be fair game for required killing. The mice in his castle are also left hungry when he stops hosting feasts — no more feasts, no more crumbs — and Despereaux ends up going on a knight-like quest to get to the bottom of the famine.
The story is told largely in song — in a brisk 90 minutes, the show has 17 original musical numbers — and this is favored mode of the PigPen collective, which takes collective credit for the writing of the music and the direction of the show, along with "co-director" Marc Bruni.
The theater company's seven original members are a talented, musical crew who met as freshmen in the theater program at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. They've gone on to premiere six original shows, including the Fringe Festival-winning The Mountain Song in 2011, and the Drama Desk-nominated, Trevor Nunn-directed musical production of Pericles at Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience in 2016.
And their love for this artform is as infectious as it is earnest. Yes, this is largely a story for children, but they bring enough childlike wonder and giddy playfulness to the staging that it has broad appeal — especially for anyone craving an escapist bit of feel-good storytelling with a moral about courage and never judging people too quickly.
Dorcas Leung is marvelous as Despereaux, and the other two female singers have very impressive chops as well — Yasmeen Sulieman as Princess Pea, and Betsy Morgan as the servant girl Miggery Sow. The musical highlights of the show, actually, center on these women, in particular the duet "With a Needle and Thread," and Despereaux's "11 o'clock number," titled "Taste of Defeat." The entire company's musical prowess is obvious throughout, though, and the anthemic closing number "Back to the Light" is rousing and memorable.
The set design by Jason Sherwood and lighting design by Donald Holder also deserve special praise.
No doubt if you have theater-loving kids in your life, you should make a beeline to this show and take them with you. It's certainly designed and written with families, but there isn't anything too cloying or annoying (like — gasp — audience participation) for adults who just want a little fairy tale fun. The puppetry is also at a minimum — basically just confined to a couple of stuffed rats and mice. It's actually a wholly charming story with a slightly unpredictable happy ending, and it has no ambitions beyond some laughs and warm-fuzzies. In short, the world could always use more of this.
'The Tale of Despereaux' plays at Berkeley Rep through January 5. Find tickets here, if you're under the age of 30, be sure to inquire about "Under 30" tickets.