Aside from dancing, Berkeley Rep Square is far from paradise

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(front row, l to r) Hailee Kaleem Wright (Ensemble), Karen Burthwright (Ensemble), and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane); (back row, l to r) Chloé Davis (Ensemble), Sir Brock Warren (Ensemble), Jamal Christopher Douglas (Ensemble), and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Paradise Square: A New Musical at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: (l to r) Jason Oremus (Ensemble) and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble), and the company of Paradise Square. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are actually two competing musicals in Paradise Square: A New Musical now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. One of them is much better than the other.

Incredibly ambitious and overstuffed, Paradise Square wants to create excitement about a particular moment in American history with a wonderfully diverse cast and a score that blends show music, traditional music and contemporary sounds (sound familiar? can’t blame producers for not wanting to throw away their shot). But this show, many years in the making, is still fuzzy, unfocused and only intermittently interesting.

In telling the story of the Five Points, a 19th-century New York slum inhabited primarily by Irish immigrants and African Americans, Paradise Square complicates its storytelling by weaving in the life of composer Stephen Foster, whose music provides a base for the score crafted by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (the guy who had the idea to create this show in the first place) with lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Foster’s music became synonymous with minstrelsy, so putting his beautiful melodies in service of a story about, as they call it in the show, “race mixing,” is in theory an interesting idea. But in fact, those melodies are obliterated, blasted and torqued beyond recognition much of the time. When we finally get to a straightforward “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s like we’ve arrived at a clearing full of light after slogging through a dense, dark forest.

Rather than giving us one central story to care about, book writers Kirwan, Craig Lucas and Marcus Gardley give us a handful, none of which are terribly compelling. They also give us dance-offs. In a story that should be rife with tension – racial tension, labor tension, political tension, Civil War draft tension, runaway slave tension, violent mob tension – the greatest intensity and satisfaction comes from three primary dance contests. The first is between a newly arrived Irish immigrant (A.J. Shively as Owen) and a fugitive slave (Sidney Dupont as Will Henry). Owen is doing Irish step dancing and Will Henry is doing Juba-style dancing. Both are electrifying. In Act 2, we get an official dance contest in a neighborhood bar, with the cash prize enough to buy your way out of the draft ($300). The contest begins and ends, but wait! We need a do-over, so Will Henry and Owen can compete head to head once again (and for a solo dance contest, they sure do a lot of singing and dancing with their squads).

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The dancing throughout the 2 1/2-plus hours of Paradise Square is routinely fascinating, often thrilling, which is exactly what you’d expect from choreographer Bill T. Jones. The problem is that the sharply etched choreography feels like it’s for a different, much more sophisticated show. If Paradise Square wanted only to dance, that would be just fine.

Director Moisés Kaufman simply cannot pull it all together. There are some powerful vocal performances from his nearly 30-member cast, but too often the acting is hammy and melodramatic (mostly the fault of the wobbly book). Actors feel like they’re creating tableaux more than they are playing actual people.

The show’s ending is a complete cop-out as the historical trappings fall away and the actors address the audience directly so they can tell us what happened to the characters after the chaos of the story comes to its conclusion. One of the things they mention is that the “race mixing” of the Five Points, primarily between Irish immigrants and African Americans, resulted in a new dance form called tap dancing. Why, oh why is this not part of this show, which just happens to be a musical wherein the best thing about it is the dancing? We see and hear tap dancing only once in the show, and it’s during a flashback to slaves being whipped on a plantation. Talk about a missed opportunity.

The presence of Foster as a character (appealingly played by Jacob Fishel) and as the basis for the show’s score should be more interesting than it is. He was coopting black music and turning it into popular song, which was in turn coopted by the racially repugnant minstrel circuit. One of the black characters gets to go on a tirade about how much she hates Stephen Foster to Stephen Foster, and it just feels irrelevant when the city is just about to explode into the deadly Draft Riots (oh, but wait, can the riots hold on a sec because we also need to do the big dance contest!).

Musicals are beastly contraptions that go wrong far more than they go right. In Paradise Square we’re told there was a time when people lived briefly in a time and place where race mattered less than character, but even the evidence we see of that seems fraught and far from idyllic. So the loss of this brief flash of semi-harmony – what we’re told was a glimpse of the future that has yet to come – doesn’t feel like much of a loss. As a result, Paradise Square doesn’t really feel like much of a show. Not yet anyway.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paradise Square: A New Musical continues an extended run through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Slammed door opens in Doll’s House, Part 2 at Berkeley Rep

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Nancy E. Carroll (left) is Anne Marie and Mary Beth Fisher is Nora in Berkeley Rep’s production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Below: John Judd’s Torvald explores the past with Fisher’s Nora. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When last we heard from Nora Helmer, she had left her husband with the slam of a door. That was (spoiler alert!) the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. In the almost 140 years since that door slammed, Nora has been reviled and celebrated for her forward-looking feminist stance on equality and her willingness to leave her three young children behind as she forged a new life away from the traditional bonds of marriage.

Now playwright Lucas Hnath imagines what happened to Nora after she stepped through that door in the audaciously titled A Doll’s House, Part 2, which opens the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season in a razor-sharp, vital and funny production directed by Les Waters.

That door, once so famously slammed, now begins the play. First there’s a knock, then a pounding. Then there’s Nora, back in her family home for the first time in 15 years. When Anne Marie, the governess who raised Nora and who raised Nora’s children after she fled, answers the door, she says, “Oh, Nora,” and it’s so fitting and funny and sad that it sounds like she’s saying, “Oh, no!”

For 90 minutes, Nora wrestles with that fateful decision she made a decade and a half before, and the most extraordinary thing abut Hnath’s play is not simply that it’s a crackling good play full of ideas and arguments and regret and ferocity and humor. No, the really extraordinary thing is that it’s actually a worthy sequel to Ibsen. Though his idiom feels much more contemporary than Ibsen (especially in translation), Hnath honors Ibsen and his characters and, most importantly, the challenges that continue to make the original Doll’s House such a powerful drama. Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, equality between women and men hasn’t quite come to pass in 140 years.

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In Hnath’s reacquaintance with Nora, he finds her successful in her own right, living as freely as a woman can in late 19th century Norway, with a career and lovers and a defiant attitude toward marriage, an institution she sees simply as torture. But she finds herself in a predicament that she can only solve with the assistance, much to her dismay, of her ex-husband, Torvald. That’s why she’s back in town.

Waters’ production is eloquent and gorgeous in its simplicity. The set by Andrew Boyce turns the Roda stage into a a mostly bare room, blonde wood floors, unadorned walls and only four pieces of furniture – coatrack, table, two chairs. Those chairs are vital to Waters’ staging. As he positions his characters for their battles, the chairs are like game pieces, and with the lighting by Yi Zhao, some of the stage pictures he creates look like they could be right of a Bergman film.

Nora’s success is exquisitely conveyed in her dress, designed by Annie Smart, which receives an appreciative gasp from the audience when she whips off her coat to reveal it.

As beautiful as the dress is, its power also comes from the way Mary Beth Fisher wears it. Her Nora owns her space. She has fought and won, but being back in Torvald’s house has her a little off-kilter, and we see her argue her way back to confidence and then lose it again in the face of actual human pain she has caused. We also see Nora try to manipulate not only Torvald (John Judd) but also Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), a potential ally in Nora’s plan to wrest what she needs from Torvald.

Nora is smart and complicated and full of fury at a system that keeps her, in her words, “beholden to bad rules…so many bad rules in this world.” Fisher’s performance is electric, especially in her scenes with Judd’s Torvald. There’s so much history between them, so much said and unsaid. If Torvald’s journey in the course of a single day seems a bit much, Judd is so believable he can pull it off.

Carroll as the beleaguered Anne Marie bears a heavy world weariness that renders almost everything she says equal parts funny and sad. There’s a lot of fury in her, too, and Carroll’s performance is crystalline in every aspect.

The play’s final test for Nora is the one she most wanted to avoid: a confrontation with one of her children. As Emmy, Nikki Massoud slowly reveals the inner conflict of an abandoned child finally able to confront the mother who left her with equal parts rage, indifference, revenge and hurt.

Waters deftly balances humor and drama, though the play ends up feeling more like a drama, especially where Nora and Torvald are concerned.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is thought provoking and incredibly entertaining. It’s also substantial in that it sits with you afterward. You can leave the doll’s house, but it doesn’t leave you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Hymns of praise for Kushner’s Angels at Berkeley Rep

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Francesca Faridany (left) is The Angel and Randy Harrison is Prior Walter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Angels in Americaby Tony Kushner. Below: (left to right) Harrison as Prior, Caldwell Tidicue as Belize, Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis Ironson and Carmen Roman as Hannah Pitt. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

You never forget your first time on the wings of Angels.

My first time experiencing Tony Kushner’s earth-shaking epic Angels in America was 1994 in an American Conservatory Theater production with Mark Wing Davey directing. I saw each part of this massive work – Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika – several weeks apart and then saw the marathon weekend double feature (both plays in one day) twice before the end of that five-times-extended run. I felt at the time like it was the smartest play I’d ever attempted to understand (but could still never fully comprehend), the most rewarding drama and comedy I’d ever seen and the most staggering work of art I could imagine a human (Kushner) and a team of supporting artists (the cast and crew) ever creating in my lifetime.

I mean, here was a play dealing with recent American history (the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan years, Russia, Roy Cohn) where five of the main characters are gay men and one of them is a prophet. Kushner is mixing politics, domestic drama, hilarious one-liners, sweeping cultural change, the ancestors, all of history (or so it seems) and the machinations of heaven and hell in nearly eight hours of theater that goes by more quickly than some 90-minute one-acts I’ve seen.

That’s how I felt then. Almost 25 years later, I feel exactly the same way but more. MORE. Angels in America is back in the Bay Area, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it is directed by Tony Taccone, who, with Oskar Eustis helped bring this play into the world when it premiered at their Eureka Theatre in 1991. The play’s staggering genius is on full display in Taccone’s marvelous production, as is Kushner’s prescience (Russia, Republican politics, the environmental crisis).

In a bold and admirable move, Taccone’s production had its official opening on a Saturday and featured parts one and two. That means a theater experience that lasts from 1pm until 11pm (with a generous couple of hours for dinner break) – and what an extraordinary experience. We’re so used to having someplace to be that surrendering to 10 hours of a singular event is like sanctuary. Then to have that sanctuary filled with Kushner’s intense intellect and dramatic and comic acumen is to spend 10 hours that will renew your faith in theater as an essential life element: air, food, water, drama.

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When you return to something you love after an absence, there’s always a chance you’ll find something diminished or something that doesn’t match the inflated ideal that has lived in your head for decades. But coming back to Angels in this assured and sleekly designed production finds nothing diminished but rather deeper, more moving and even more mysterious.

Kushner’s audacity in harnessing characters from the real world (Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg), fictional characters you might find in any play or sitcom (estranged lovers, testy in-laws, rock-solid best friends, distant husbands, frustrated wives) and then mixing in the mythic (angels!) and the apocryphal (God did exist but he has disappeared!) is unmatched in modern drama. And though the plays cover, essentially, a period from 1985 to 1986, they don’t feel dated in any way that makes them seem less vital or imaginative or visceral.

The stage of the Roda Theatre has been turned into a giant marble vault by designer Takeshi Kata. Bits of scenery slide on and off the stage, while Jennifer Schriever’s lights train focus and set mood with startling efficiency. The lack of fancy stagecraft means we’re paying more attention to the words and the performances, though the occasionally spectacular video projections (by Alexander V. Nichols) bring some spectacle, as do the wizards at Flying by Foy who pull the strings of the angel’s flight.

If the audience can really hear Kushner’s words, I’d say that 90 percent of the work is done. The script is that good as characters veer from the prosaic to the poetic to the prophetic, sometimes within one speech. The basic rule is this: get out of the way of the play and let it roll. That rule is respected here. It’s astonishing at the curtain call(s) to see that there are only eight actors in these plays, though several pull yeoman’s duty in multiple parts.

Spending this much time with actors tends to make you fall a little in love with them. There are three performers in particular who had me in their thrall. Carmen Roman begins each play in the guise of an old man (a rabbi in Part One, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik in Part Two), and she is the kind of actor who makes every word sing with truth. She also plays a beleaguered doctor (imagine having to tell Roy Cohn he’s dying from AIDS), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and a tough but devoted Mormon mother. She is spectacular in every role, as is Francesca Faridany as the imperious angel, a compassionate nurse, a Salt Lake City Realtor, a homeless woman in the Bronx and a diorama dummy come to life.

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Spinella originated the role of Prior Walter, the play’s protagonist. He went on to win two Tony Awards (one for each play) and then to a career on Broadway and on screen. He’s back on stage in Angels but this time in a very different role. He’s playing the nightmare known as Roy Cohn, and he is ferociously good. He’s dangerously charismatic and funny and just as dangerously full of fight and venom. To watch his scenes with Roman as Ethel Rosenberg is to feel a most curious (and soul satisfying) twist in karmic retribution.

As Prior Walter, Randy Harrison finds his own ferocity and warmth, especially in his scenes with his best friend Belize, the quick-witted nurse (played by Caldwell Tidicue, probably better known as Bob the Drag Queen, the Season 8 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Rqce).

Several hours’ worth of angst is supplied by Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis, Prior’s erstwhile boyfriend and speed talker. Louis doesn’t leave any ideas unexpressed, no matter how ill-formed or potentially offensive, and that makes for good theater. As the Mormon couple in a seismically shifting marriage, Bethany Jillard as Harper and Danny Binstock show how painful the rough, splintered edges are as they poke through the thin veneer of everything as it’s supposed to be.

It is truly astonishing how much life there is in Angels in America, past, present and indeterminate future. The whole thing leaves you somewhat stunned and more than a little revitalized. It engages the heart and the mind in equal measure and makes you work to feel part of a community not just with the performers and characters but with all the artists involved and the audience members surrounding you. That’s a profound thing, but perhaps not all that surprising. Angels in America, to paraphrase Kushner himself, pulses to the “tick of the infinite.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika continue through July 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 51-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Complex, human look at gun violence in Berkeley Rep Hours

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Jeremy Kahn (left) is David, a professor; Daniel Chung (center) is Dennis, a troubled, possibly dangerous student; and Jackie Chung is Gina, a compassionate professor in Julia Cho’s Office Hour at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Gina attempts to connect with Daniel. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Julia Cho is exactly the kind of playwright I crave. She’s thoughtful, adventurous and fanciful in a way that relates directly to reality (she’s not a fantasist – her flights mean something in the day to day). She cares about people and their messes, both internal and external. Her Aubergine at Berkeley Repertory Theatre was a revelation (read my review here) and has become one of my favorite plays in recent memory.

Her play Office Hour, now at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, is a thorny piece of work. It’s about gun violence, but it’s an intimate exploration of the subject with a teacher attempting to connect with a troubled student who could turn out to be the kind of campus shooter we’ve seen way too much of in recent years.

There’s something contrived-feeling about this play, and that surprised me, until after I thought about it on the way home. This is not a slice of realism, a documentary, an editorial on the heartache of unrestrained gun violence in our bullet-happy nation. It’s a writer using writing to pick apart something painful and complex. The play is about writers and revels in the notion of writing as an equation through which we work out the mathematics, geometry and physics of existence, but with grammar, deep thought and agony.

I continue to be impressed by the intelligence and straightforward sensibility of director Lisa Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s artistic associate. You know when she’s at the helm of a show, she’ll provide a conduit into the heart of the play itself and not her gloss on it. She’ll bring to bear whatever the play requires without the kind of directorial flourish that wants to push aside author, actors and designers to reveal the director as the true maestro of the stage. Peterson is the kind of director you can count on to reveal rather than obfuscate.

Even though this is quite a serious play, I appreciated the moments of humor when they pop through. I especially liked one character’s take on the pitfalls of marrying someone whom you claim is your best friend: “If you marry your best friend, you have one less important person in your life than you should.” Perhaps a full-blown comedy could be in Cho’s future? I hope so. But I’m there for whatever comes next, laughs or not.

I reviewed Office Hour for Theatermania.com. Here’s an excerpt:

The parallels Cho forces her characters to face boil down to the simple desire to connect. A writer, even a strange one like Dennis, wants to be noticed, wants the work to be appreciated in some way. His “terrorist” act isn’t an attempt to hide, as Gina points out, but a costume to make him noticed. So writers and a potential “classic shooter,” as Dennis is described, have something in common: They want connection.

Read the full review here.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION
Julia Cho’s Office Hour continues through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Watch on the Rhine at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman includes (front row from left) Jonah Horowitz as Bodo Muller, Emma Curtin as Babette Muller and Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller; (back row, from left) Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller and Silas Sellnow as Joshua Muller. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The thing I can’t stand about 24-hour cable news networks is that it’s 5% news and 95% talking heads spouting opinions and fighting over those opinions.

The thing I loved about Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (a co-production from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre) is that the author stakes a claim for action. After a certain point, opinions matter a whole lot less than what you choose to do about whatever opinion you hold.

I reviewed the production for TheaterMania.com. Here’s a glimpse.

Though Hellman’s dialogue can be ponderous and stagey, there’s a fervor to it that director Peterson embraces, and the nearly three-hour, three-act drama steadily ratchets up the tension. By the third act, it becomes a thriller that actually delivers.

You can almost feel Hellman trying to rein in her passion by interjecting humor, which usually means the wisecracking Fanny, so sharply performed by [Caitlin] O’Connell, gets off another good line or insult while swanning about in elegant 1940s finery designed by Raquel Barreto. Otherwise, this is pretty serious and grim going.

http://www.theatermania.com/san-francisco-theater/reviews/watch-on-the-rhine-berkeley-rep_83427.html

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine continues through Jan. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Imaginary discomfort rules at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit includes (from left)Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Gold, Marilee Talkington as Naomi, Danny Scheie as the Ghost, Susan Lynskey as Sarah Gold and Cassidy Brown as Michael. Below: Talkington (left) and Lynskey star in the new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first time I heard the title for the new play by Daniel Handler, the San Francisco writer behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, I was confused. Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit is the title, and it wasn’t the Snickety-y subtitle that perplexed me. It was the notion that comfort could be imaginary. Isn’t comfort comforting no matter where it comes from? You can receive comfort from an external source (a parent, a pet, a narcotic) or you can just imagine comfort (memory, dream, hallucination), but as long as you are comforted, job done…at least for a little while, right?

Surely seeing the play would help me understand the title, but no such luck. Imaginary Comforts opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre in a slick world-premiere production directed by Tony Taccone and featuring a cast that boasts some of the best actors the Bay Area has to offer. The play itself seems confused about its comedy, its sincerity, its theatricality. It’s kind of like an imaginary play that may one day find its reason for being – and at one point a character questions the notion of imaginary comfort, which made me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! That!”

Fractured time and narrative make the play something of a puzzle, which is nicely reflected in the hyperkinetic set by Todd Rosenthal. A speedy turntable repositions moving walls and doorways that are framed with strips of light, thus creating the effect of a living comic strip whose pieces quickly fall into and out of place. The central discussion amid all the movement involves death and ghosts and stories, but nothing is really moving or scary or, to be quite honest, terribly engaging.

But it is fairly entertaining for about 90 minutes partly because Taccone knows how to move things along and his actors know how to wring everything they can from Handler’s script. Somehow the premise of an inept rabbi engaging with a grieving family over the course of several years never fully comes to life, in spite of all the spinning, brightly lit walls.

At the heart of the play, and, indeed, in the lumpiest part of the title, is a story told by a father to a young daughter about a childless couple that made a deal with a rabbit to take one of its many children in exchange for keeping the entire rabbit brood safe. The rabbit child turns into a human child, and when it comes time to offer comfort, care and safety to the rabbit family, the human parent kills the rabbit parent and serves it for dinner. The ghost of the rabbit then haunts the humans, reminding them of their unfulfilled promises. This story emerges as important when its teller, the father, has died, and his adult daughter offers it to the rabbi who will be leading the funeral service.

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There are two problems with this. First, the rabbi, Naomi, has no idea what to do with the story or a way to discern what it tells her about the deceased that she might be able to share with the congregation. The second is that the story, as fables go, just isn’t compelling. Even when the view of the fable shifts to an entirely different take on it, there doesn’t seem to be much there there – certainly not enough upon which to build a play.

As Rabbi Naomi, the always-appealing Marilee Talkington has the daunting task of making her a believable character. She’s highly self-aware in that she knows what a bad rabbi she is. Her entire rabbinical career seems to have been undermined and irretrievably damaged by the upending of a bottle of kosher wine at a key moment in her training. As a result, she bumbles through her job, bemoaning how bad she is at it and how she occupies the lowest rung of rabbi service even though there’s supposedly no hierarchy among rabbis. But all that self-awareness doesn’t make her any less inept. If anything, it makes her worse.

We meet her in the throes of a blind date with a self-described “psychic adviser” (the enigmatic Michael Goorjian) who is not Jewish, though he said he was in his computer dating profile, and she is perturbed that he thought her job was “rabbit” due to either her typo or his misreading. Either way, it’s a terrible date, though it allows Naomi to let us know (the first of many times) what a bad rabbi she is. Then we get to see her ineptitude in action when she meets the Gold family. Marcus Gold (Julian López -Morillas seen in flashbacks) has died. His widow (a funny but under-used Sharon Lockwood) can only moan and cry. His best friend (Jarion Monroe) seethes with anger, and his daughter (a wry Susan Lynskey) is lost in the chaos of death and gets no comfort from her husband (Cassidy Brown).

In a forced bit of coincidence, Naomi’s blind date has a connection to the grieving family, one that involves that odd rabbit fable and an actor (the sublime Danny Scheie) hired to actually play the ghost of the rabbit. Even as time passes and bits of plot and character are revealed, the play never comes fully into focus, and the recurring motifs – the story of the Jews, “the phrase I would use is…,” sucking at your job, being haunted by old stories, the whole rabbit fable – become less impactful and more annoying.

But there are flashes of light in the writing, like a potent delineation between “nonsense” and “bullshit” made by one of the characters. And the frazzled Naomi gets off a good laugh with her response to the rabbit fable. Upon hearing that the humans ate the rabbit, she sputters, “Rabbit isn’t even kosher! They’re for gentiles and Easter. Jesus.” She also has the gall to say, during a moment of tension amid the grieving Golds, “This is a difficult time for all of us,” which is kind of hilarious.

It is a difficult time for all of us, Naomi. Would that there was some comfort – imaginary or otherwise – in this jumble of play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit continues through Nov. 19 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2900 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Succumb to temptation and see Ain’t Too Proud at Berkeley Rep

EXTENDED THROUGH NOV. 5
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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations includes (from left) Christian Thompson as Smokey Robinson, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, Jared Joseph as Melvin Franklin, Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks and James Harkness as Paul Williams. Below: The Temptations – (from left) Sykes, Pope, Harkness, Joseph and Baskin – show off their moves. Photos by Carole Litwin/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is in its groove, this world-premiere musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is absolutely electrifying. Featuring all or part of 30 songs from the ’60s and ’70s Motown era, the music alone is enough to make this a must-see theatrical event, but it’s clear that this musical biography is going places (namely Broadway).

It’s not surprising that the story of The Temptations, one of the most successful R&B groups in pop music history, is being given the stage musical treatment. Perhaps what’s surprising about this venture is that it involves two of the major talents behind another, incredibly successful stage bio: Jersey Boys. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo return for another chapter of pop music history translated to the musical theater stage, and the results are similarly thrilling and tuneful. Here’s another story about a scrappy boy band that hits it big, suffers the usual success-related plagues (ego, drugs) and survives with the music (if not the original band members) prevailing. Think Jersey Boys meets Dream Girls to create Detroit Dream Boys.

What’s interesting about Ain’t Too Proud is that it begins in Detroit, with the eventual formation of the five-member band and its eventual acceptance into the stable of resident hitmaker Berry Gordy and his Motown label. After struggling to get traction on the charts, the Temptations finally break through with “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and by the late ’60s and early ’70s, they’re struggling along with most of the country to adapt to rapidly changing times and tastes all the while dealing with some explosive personalities within the band, which leads to a sort of revolving door of members of the remainder of its existence. We’re told that from 1963 to the present day (there is still a band called The Temptations making music in the world), two dozen men have been in (and out) of the band. That’s a lot of guys to keep track of in a musical biography, so book writer Dominique Morisseau (a noted playwright and Detroit native) focuses primarily on the original five members for the first act and the first few replacements in the second act, which can’t help but lose some of its focus as years and members seem to speed by without much specificity.

The musical is based on the book The Temptations by founding member Otis Williams – the same book that served as a basis for the two-part 1998 NBC miniseries “The Temptations – so the story is told primarily from his point of view. As played by the charismatic and eminently likable Derrick Baskin, Otis is savvy and hardworking, a team player who makes up in reliable good nature what he may lack in showbiz pizzazz. He’s the through-line of the story, serving as its narrator and amiable main character (and at Thursday’s opening-night performance, the real Otis was in the theater beaming at his on-stage alter-ego).

A single song, like “Shout” can serve to rile up the audience (boy, does that song rile up an audience) and provide a lively backdrop while Otis gathers together other Detroit guys to form what will become The Temptations. Time is compressed into a single song as he recruits Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) into the band. Then the song “Get Ready” charts the rise of the band to major player on the American pop scene.

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By the time we get to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” being performed on “American Bandstand,” it’s clear that the Temps are well on their way, and the story shifts focus in several ways. First, to Otis’ wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott, who stops the show with her take on “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”), and their faltering marriage, and then to the bad behavior and ego flares of Ruffin and Kendricks.

Act 2 can be summed up in one line of dialogue: “The bigger we get, the more we fall apart.” Great songs like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (sung as part of a TV special with Diana Ross and the Supremes), “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” attest to the quality of the music being made even while band members were quitting, being fired or dying and new ones were coming in and out. By the time Otis lets loose on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” it’s easy to understand why (on top of his own personal tragedy) keeping the The Temptations alive and viable could be heartbreaking work.

The end of Jersey Boys was kind of a brilliant trick in that the Four Seasons’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame capped a fractious era in the band’s history and this musical itself, Jersey Boys itself was the actual final chapter for the band, and we in the audience were all part of it. The ending of Aint’ Too Proud hasn’t yet figured out how to play out on that level, but that’s what out-of-town tryouts are for.

If Ain’t Too Proud isn’t perfect, it’s in phenomenally good shape. Director McAnuff, using the conveyer belt and turntables of Robert Brill’s astonishingly efficient set (with subdued and artful projections by Peter Nigrini), delivers another finely tuned machine that seamlessly blends songs with action and some of the smoothest dance moves in recent memory (Trujillo is the master of in-unison band dancing). Howell Binkley’s lights and Paul Tazewell’s costume designs convey time and place with precision and panache, and the 12-piece band headed by Kenny Seymour kicks some serious R&B butt, capturing the texture and flavor of the Motown sound and giving it fresh zest. The moment the band is revealed on stage toward the end of this 2 1/2-hour extravaganza is a well-earned thrill.

In the end, though, it’s the extraordinary cast that makes Ain’t Too Proud such a rich and rewarding pleasure. They sing, they dance, they add nuance to a fast-moving story that doesn’t have time for a lot of character detail. The way they do the things they do makes us care about the success of the band and its part in Gordy’s goal of using Motown to break down racial barriers coast to coast (and making him gobs of money while he’s at it). The voices are simply glorious – especially Sykes’ Ruffin and Pope’s Kendricks – and the blend of the boys in the band feels true to the original Temptations sound while making feel alive and not overly polished.

There’s a repeated line in the show about not dwelling on the past – the only thing you can rewind is a song – but this whole exercise is essentially a rewind. Sometimes dwelling on the past is worth it when you get new insight into the music and are able – as you do with Ain’t Too Proud – to hear it with fresh ears and a bigger heart.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations continues an extended run through Nov. 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$125 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Facing a fearsome farce in Berkeley Rep’sOctoroon

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 29
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Lance Gardner is George, a new plantation owner, in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Afi Bijou (left) is Minnie and Jasmine Bracey is Dido, slaves on the Terrebonne Plantation. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

What a miserable species we are.

Existence is difficult enough as it is, but we compound the misery with our unrelenting egomania, greed and all the isms and phobias and ogenies. We unleash a never-ending torrent of cruelty in the name of power and money thinking it will somehow fix something, be it global or deeply personal, and yet it always ends in a big pile of bloody pulp or crap or both. In the big picture, we don’t ever seem to learn. But in the smaller picture, we’re at least getting a little smarter.

Artists like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins do that cracked-mirror thing that helps us see where we’ve been and where we are. None of it is pretty, but his wild play An Octoroon, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre grabs you by your painful parts and delivers a surprising, funny and provocative 2 1/2 hours of theater.

To call this simply a play isn’t really accurate. An Octoroon is a meta-theatrical fantasia, layers upon layers of art and history, comedy and tragedy, music and melodrama, abrasive satire and inspired clowning. This experience is never just one thing, and that could be an unwieldy thing, but director Eric Ting, the artistic director at the California Shakespeare Theater, has a firm grasp of the constantly shifting situation.

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To begin with, this is an adaptation of an adaptation. Jacobs-Jenkins is adapting Dion Boucicault’s 1859 hit The Octoroon, which is itself adapted from a then-contemporary novel, The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reed. The antebellum-era plot involves a faltering plantation, the sale of its slaves and a love story between a slave owner and a woman who is part black (one-eighth is an octoroon, a terrible word if ever there was one; one-quarter is a quadroon, just as terrible).

All of that is still here, performed in a style between melodrama and farce (all accompanied on a jangly piano by Lisa Quoresimo in a Br’er Rabbit costume), but Jenkins gives us a very contemporary frame with a playwright character named BJJ (played by the always appealing Lance Gardner) who is working through his own personal issues (what does “black playwright” mean anyway?) taking the advice of a therapist he may or may not have by adapting the Boucicault play. Problem is that his white actors hired to play the slave owners have quit, so he slaps on some whiteface and plays the characters himself. Another writer appears, known simply as “Playwright.” This one is a stand-in for Boucicault himself and is played by Ray Porter, a ferocious presence on stage. Boucicault will also be in BJJ’s play. He’s playing the Native American character Wahnotee, and by the logic of this world, he naturally paints his face red for the role and dons an enormous feathered headdress (think Bob Mackie and Cher – fantastically stylish costumes by Montana Blanco). He’ll also play a slave trader, and BJJ will take on another role as well: the mustache-twirling villain who wants to sink the plantation and sell off Zoe (Sydney Morton), the octoroon, who is already in love with George, the plantation owner played by BJJ in whiteface.

The slave women in the play, primarily Dido (Jasmine Bracey) and Minnie (Afi Bijou), work in the house and are fairly straightforward, but rather than seeming like they’re in a 19th-century melodrama, they discourse like two women who have their own podcast about what’s going down on the old plantation. They’re hilarious and trenchant, and the weariness of the melodrama is enlivened whenever they’re on stage.

Because the law forbids the love between George and Zoe, George must attempt to make a profitable union in an effort to save his plantation. He turns to plantation neighbor Dora, played by Jennifer Regan in full-on goofy Carol Burnett mode (always a good thing, especially when stylistically appropriate, as it is here). And the world of the plantation is further filled out by Afua Busia as Grace, a pregnant slave (who also has a baby with a face that has to be seen to be believed) and Amir Talai, a non-Caucasian actor in blackface playing two slaves, including one whose name features the n-word. Speaking of that word, you hear it a lot, so however you need to deal with that, there it is.

The play is at its strongest when it’s not simply presenting the adaptation of Boucicault but is messing with it – and us. That means the best bits are at the beginning of the play and then in Act 2 when the melodrama becomes too outrageous to continue with a small cast (and not enough mean white men). Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to rattle a modern audience the way a 19th-century audience might have been rattled by certain twists in the plot. Let’s just say he pulls out some heavy artillery for this mission, and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, with a huge assist from Jiyoun Chang’s effective lights, offers yet another design surprise to wrap things up with yet another tonal shift.

The ending brings us back to now, but in a timeless way (voices joined), but there’s little sense of resolution. How could there be? The Boucicault melodrama traffics, as all good melodrama does, in abject misery created by societal restrictions, and choosing the American South for such an exploration is rife with the kind of misery that has created every kind of drama every minute of every year since. In a theatrical experience like this, we see the mess. We laugh at it, we flinch from it, we bristle.

Some will likely take offense at the whiteface, the blackface or the redface or the n-word or the drinking of an entire bottle of wine in one go or the inclusion of a mammy or a stage overrun with cotton balls or an actor playing two characters attempting to murder himself (Gardner is a deft physical comedian) or the sight of a man giving himself a wedgie. But there’s no denying how effective An Octoroon is at not letting anyone off the hook. This is our mess, our misery, our melodrama, our tragedy, our farce. That Jacobs-Jenkins and the entire on-stage and off-stage crew of An Octoroon have made it so powerful, so baffling and so, dare I say it, so entertaining, is nothing short of a modern theatrical wonder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon continues an extended run through July 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Musical Monsoon Wedding debuts at Berkeley Rep

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The world-premiere musical Monsoon Wedding, based on director Mira Nair’s film of the same name, features a large cast that includes (back row, from left) Ali Momen (Congress), Sorab Wadia (CL Chawla), Monsoon Bissell (Shashi Chawla), Rohan Gupta (Varun Verma), Palomi Ghosh (Vijaya), and Andrew Prashad (Mohan Rai); (front row, from left) Mahira Kakkar (Pimmi Verma), Kuhoo Verma (Aditi Verma), Michael Maliakel (Hemant Rai), Krystal Kiran (Saroj Rai), and Meetu Chilana (Grandmother). Below: Anisha Nagarajan is Alice and Namit Das is PK Dubey in the new musical adaptation of the 2001 film. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Beauty, heart and fun flood the stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Monsoon Wedding, the musical adaptation of the 2001 film of the same name. There’s clearly a lot of love invested in the making of this show, from the original film’s director, Mira Nair, who returns to helm this ambitious stage version, to the ebullient cast.

The music, by Vishal Bhardwaj, is an attractive fusion of Indian pop/Bollywood and musical theater storytelling, and the stage visuals can be stunning, from the elegant simplicity of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set design to the eye-popping colors and sumptuous textiles of the gorgeous costumes by Arjun Bhasin (who also designed costumes for the movie). There’s nothing terribly fancy about this production, but the colors of the fabrics, the abundance of marigolds and the lovely lights (by Donald Holder) make for highly pleasurable viewing.

But is it a good musical? Well, it’s a new musical, and it still needs a lot of work. With a few tweaks, mainly to simplify its crowd of characters, the book by the movie’s script writer, Sabrina Dhawan, sticks to the premise of the movie: a family in Delhi prepares for the arranged marriage of their daughter to a husband from a good family (which is now an Indian-American family from New Jersey). The subplots include a love story for the wedding planner and a domestic worker and a deep, dark secret that threatens to split the family.

What the musical has going for it is the energy of its score, performed by a bright seven-piece band under the music supervision of Carmel Dean and music direction of Greg Kenna, and the lively choreography by Lorin Latarro. The full company numbers are the most fun, although Dhawan’s book could be stronger in the set-up for the musical numbers. For instance, a fun number for the women, “Aunties Are Coming,” celebrates their sexuality and is a hoot, but it comes out of nowhere. And two numbers for the event planner, PK Dubey (Namit Das), and Alice, his love (Anisha Nagarajan), blur the line between fantasy and reality so strongly that they end up just being head scratchers. The first, “Goddess of the Light,” is beautiful, but Alice on a spiral staircase holding candles is either a fantasy vision or a badly written scene. The second involves stage-altering projections (by Peter Nigrini), a train and a horse. It’s so out of tune with the rest of the show that it’s hard to make sense of it as anything but absurd.

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The leads are a problem. Kuhoo Verma as Aditi, the bride to be, and Michael Maliakel as the groom to be, have nice voices (Maliakel’s is especially swoony) but their bland performances come from weak characters. She’s a rebel who won’t conform to anyone’s idea of a “good girl,” and he’s a well-educated prig who traffics in stereotypical visions of happiness. They’re not interesting, though their one solid musical is the quartet “Neither Here Nor There” sung with Das and Nagarajan, whose conflict – he’s Hindu, she’s Christian – is far more compelling than forcing us to buy that an arranged marriage, where those involved have met twice before, will actually turn into a love match before the wedding ceremony.

The weakest link in this musical adaptation can be found in the lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Banal, cliché, repetitive and jarring, the lyrics have a tendency to cheapen the music. She rhymes Vishnu and “wish-nu.” In the opening number we hear “love is good where love is strong.” And a comic lyric goes, “Long ago I was hot. Nowadays I am not.” And there’s a whole unnecessary song about a Romeo and Juliet situation during the partition of India and Pakistan sung by a character who, in the next draft, would probably be excised. The worst song in the score, however, is “Daughter of My Heart,” which is painful.

Still, the spirit of the musical is an embracing one. This is a show that, like the movie, wants to invite everyone into the family and celebrate with them. By the time we get to the wedding after some drama – the wedding is off! family secrets uncovered! – the vibe is lovely and loving, so the finale, which spills out into the audience, is gratifying and yes, celebratory.

There are charming performances here, most notably by Sharvari Deshpande as the cousin of the bride who brings real passion to her scenes, songs and dances. There’s some welcome comic relief from Monsoon Bissell (who also happened to be the first assistant director on the movie) as one of the aunties, and Das and Jagarajan make the most of their sparky chemistry (even in a bizarre moment when their characters fly, straight up, for a second, then come back down – really? that’s it?).

In the end, Monsoon Wedding as a musical doesn’t greatly improve over Monsoon Wedding the movie, which already had a lot of great music infusing its spirit without having to compromise its storytelling with weak lyrics or uneven performances.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Monsoon Wedding continues an extended run through July 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$115 (subject to change) Call 51-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.