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Review: Monsoon Wedding Is a Deluge of Musical Sentiment and Spectacle

Mira Nair has adapted her 2001 film into a stage musical.

Sharvari Deshpande and Gagan Dev Riar (foreground) lead the ensemble in the finale of Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
(© Matthew Mruphy)

There are two ways to adapt a film into a stage musical. You can try to maintain the quiet intimacy of the camera, which rarely works (The Band’s Visit is a notable exception). Or you can embrace the musical form in all its bright colors and broad strokes. Director Mira Nair has wisely opted for the latter in the stage adaptation of her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, now making its off-Broadway debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse. A deluge of sentiment, sound, and sparkle, it’s like being at an actual Punjabi wedding.

The nuptials in question are between Aditi (Salena Qureshi) and Hemant (Deven Kolluri). She’s the daughter of a well-to-do Delhi family and he’s a child of the diaspora now settled in Hoboken and working for Morgan Stanley. They’ve never actually met, as this is an arranged marriage. Will the few days before the wedding be enough to work through his broken heart from a previous relationship, or her ongoing affair with a TV personality (Manik Singh Anand)?

While they iron that out, the logistics are the responsibility of Aditi’s Dad (Gagan Dev Riar) and event planner Dubey (Namit Das), who falls for the family’s maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan), even though she’s a Christian. As with any wedding, old secrets do the electric slide with new romance — and the mother of the groom gets rip-roaring drunk (Meetu Chilana is hilariously abrasive in this role, her every side glance telling the story of an Indian-American woman holding on to a grudge against the old country).

Deven Kolluri plays Hemant, and Salena Qureshi plays Aditi in Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Nair and her creative team (book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan; music by Vishal Bhardwaj; lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead) have enlarged the details of the story for its journey to the stage: Hemant’s family is more American; the conflict around Alice’s Christianity is more explicit; everyone seems richer and more connected to the globalized world. This is appropriate for both musical theater and India, a country that has in the last two decades become the most populous in the world, with a burgeoning domestic middle-class and a highly influential diaspora. Nair updates the story to present day, so smartphones and social media play a role, while disputes over religion and tradition seem even more pointed in a country reckoning with its own brand of resurgent nationalism.

Bhardwaj’s music gushes with emotion and benefits enormously from Jamshied Sharifi and Rona Siddiqui’s rich orchestrations. (Where else are you going to hear a sitar off-Broadway?) Under Emily Whitaker’s music direction, we experience the percussion in our bones and feel the urge to join in Shampa Gopikrishna’s joyous choreography.

Dramaturgically, some of the numbers are head-scratchers: Aditi’s “I want” song, “South Delhi Girl,” introduces her as a desi Kardashian, a first impression not borne out by Qureshi’s warm and understated performance. Other songs have a singsong workmanlike quality, like the in-law meeting number “All in This Together,” which lurches under the burden of too much exposition.

But when the score is good, it’s really good, like Aditi and Hemant’s enchanting duet “Could You Have Loved Me,” an inverse “If I Loved You” for the uncomfortably betrothed. The Bollywood pastiche number, “Chuk Chuk,” is rollicking good fun, made even more delightful by the hilarious image projected on the upstage wall of Dubey on a white horse, the wind gently caressing his luxurious mustache.

Anisha Nagarajan (center) performs “Chuk Chuk” with the ensemble on Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Veteran projection designer David Bengali has outdone himself with an ever-evolving canvas that conveys a fantasy of India past and present. Steam rises from a train speeding through the lush jungle, urban landscapes arrive like a vision by Van Gogh, and old photos tell the story of a family held together across borders. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, expanding the frame of the story to capture a city teeming with life.

Bradley King has calibrated the lighting perfectly, so that the projections complement the onstage performances without distracting from them. Jason Ardizzone-West’s multilevel set provides plenty of playing space for a musical that is still quite cinematic in its flow. Arjun Bhasin’s costumes deliver the expected explosion of color, but also contribute to subtler storytelling: The fitted thigh-high shorts worn by that Aditi’s younger brother (a buoyant Kinshuk Sen) scream “gay” without that word ever being uttered. And sound designer David Schnirman has engineered pristine balance in a very difficult space.

Solid performances abound: Qureshi and Kolluri are attractive as the central couple, but it’s the adorably goofy Das and the charmingly mischievous Nagarajan who steal our hearts with their B-plot romance. Alok Tewari conjures low-grade panic with his performance as Uncle Tej. Sharvari Deshpande astounds with her powerful eleven o’clock number “Be a Good Girl.” And Riar whole-heartedly embodies his role as the Punjabi Tevye, a father trying to do right by his children in a rapidly changing world.

There’s plenty to like about Monsoon Wedding, a musical overflowing with heart and humor. It’s a joyous occasion.

 

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