Review: Despite flaws, Berkeley Rep’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ a colorful examination of culture, traditions

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The forecast calls for rain in the world premiere musical “Monsoon Wedding,” based on director Mira Nair’s 2001 film. (foreground) Kuhoo Verma (Aditi Verma) and Michael Maliakel (Hemant Rai); (background) Mahira Kakkar (Pimmi Verma), Rohan Gupta (Varun Verma), and Sharvari Deshpande (Ria Verma). The show is now on its second extension. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Monsoon Wedding” is loaded with wonderful moments that capture the quintessential story of two worlds that exist within one culture, as both of those cultures bridge their differences for a wedding.

And while there are so many great things that happen within the framework of this world premiere musical directed by Hollywood filmmaker Mira Nair, it just doesn’t quite ring true enough yet. While the music is pulsating, loaded with powerful and passionate Indian beats, the script does little to give its actors enough organic opportunities to delve deeper into their respective roles.

Nair’s well-paced direction, Lorin Latarro’s nuanced choreography and Arjun Bashin’s varied costume design all contribute to a piece that features many unifying moments.

It is wedding day for Aditi (a youthful and naïve Kuhoo Verma), who is starting her nuptials off by getting her lipsmack on with her very married and super hot boss Vikram (Ali Momen). Her fiancé, the supremely tall New Jersey native Hemant (nicely voiced Michael Maliakel) and his family have just arrived in Delhi, where a colorful host of characters await, including Aditi’s warm ringmaster father Lalit (a warm Jaaved Jaaferi) who welcomes us into his home for what promises to be an unforgettable night.

And unforgettable it is. There is so much to unpack in the show, a piece that does not hesitate to take on issues that deal with the current and past history of India, the nuances of arranged marriages, as well as the roles of the societal dominance of males, as evidenced by the tension between Lalit’s brother-in-law Tej (a supremely shady Alok Tewari) and Aditi’s live-in cousin Ria (strongly presenced Sharvari Deshpande).

All of this does not include a tender and humor-filled subplot that includes jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none everyman wedding planner PK Dubey (the foppish and funny Namit Das). He has fallen fast for the Verma’s maid Alice (Anisha Nagarajan), but her Christianity may just clash a bit too much with PK’s commitment to Hinduism

The compositions of Vishal Bhardwaj and lyrics by Susan Birkhead certainly soar in plenty of moments, with some of the strongest numbers saved for act two, much of the music using a vast plethora of styles. The jazzy and upbeat “You Will Learn” is rich and made to showcase all the joy that comes with a big Indian wedding.

Those songs and the overall story line take on a greater significance and quality in act two, where the production finds much greater footing and urgency. The song “Love is Love,” takes on a tone that is more than simply what is happening in the story. Those three simple words have become something of an anthem in modern times, exhibiting the power of human connection and happiness that begins in the core of one’s soul. “Could You Have Loved Me” is deliciously poignant, a moment where two strangers who set out to sabotage their arrangement wonder about what might have been. And the big production numbers, such as a magnificently theatrical “Chuk Chuk,” where PK chases down his Alice, is loaded with hilarity and colorful flair.

And in a song that magnificently shares of culture, “Turban Song” puts the regality of the placement of a turban at the forefront, and it is beautiful.

Where the piece certainly needs more development is in Sabrina Dhawan’s uneven script. The transitions from scene to song are often clunky, and the words do not give enough opportunity to the actors to create enough organic moments. Take the moment of breakdown for Lalit, where his joy of a monumental occasion for his family has crumbled. A moment that should be loaded with pathos now feels flat and forced.

Despite these script woes, Deshpandi has managed to flourish. She has one of the truest arcs in the piece, and the moment where Lalit takes back his family at the urging of Ria is strong, making a family picture late in the play one of the show’s most effective scenes.

One thing that has always fascinated me about Indian culture and weddings is the sheer pageantry of it all. From the absolute theatricality and rituals of the ceremony, to the joy of dancing like no one is watching, Indian weddings are feasts for the eyes, ears and heart. Nothing is gonna stop one from happening. Not even a little fall of rain.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Monsoon Wedding”
Directed by Mira Nair
The Word: Despite the script’s unevenness, the piece brings much joy, pain and marigolds to the Roda stage.
Stars: 4 out of 5
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $40 – $125
Through July 9th
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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