Monsoon Wedding Musical Review. Loves, India Style.

The swirl of colorful saris and blast of Vishal Bhardwaj’s pulsating Indian music enlivens this stage adaptation of Mira Nair’s acclaimed 2001 movie, offering a confusion of characters who have gathered together in Delhi for a traditional wedding between two young people who have never met.  

As with a real wedding, much of the challenge of “Monsoon Wedding,” is figuring out who everybody is.  The production offers theatergoers an aid (much the same aid offered by “Leopoldstadt,” another theater piece about a large family)  by printing a two-page family tree in the program. Actually, there are trees for five families, including the family of the bride (the Vermas) and the family of the groom (the Rais), plus the workers (a family of sorts) hired to staff the wedding. There are nineteen named characters in all, as well as unnamed members of the singing and dancing ensemble.

A note in the program by Nair, who is directing the musical herself,  further clarifies the show. There are “four kinds of love” in it, she writes. Each one is illustrated by a major story.

One of the two pages of family trees in the program

There is of course the potential love between the bride, Aditi Verma (Salena Qureshi) and Hemant Rai (Deven Kolluri.) Both seem unlikely candidates for an arranged marriage, yet here they are. Hemant graduated from Princeton, works for Morgan Stanley, and lives in Hoboken, N.J.  When he first arrives with his parents in Delhi for the wedding, he wonders in song:

Is this my home, India?
Like a half-remembered song?
And when I meet my bride,
Will I feel like I belong? 

For her part, Aditi, the only daughter of a privileged Delhi family, has agreed to this marriage because she’s sick of waiting for her secret lover, an older TV newscaster, to divorce his wife.

It’s hardly a surprise that the ups and downs of their relationship more or less follow the standard trajectory of a romantic comedy; how could it be otherwise?

But their story is just one kind of love in “Monsoon Wedding

Another is the “neglected love” between the parents of the bride, the mother Pimmi (Palomi Ghosh.)  and Aditi’s father Lalit (Gagan Dev Riar), stressed by the demands of the wedding, especially its expense, and going around berating his wife and his son, and everybody else.

That includes the wedding planner Parbatlal Kanhayialaal Dubey  — he prefers PK Dubey, and is called simply Dubey. 

Dubey (standout Namit Das) at first seems just comic relief, along with his crew. He has the exasperating habit of telling Lalit that this or that aspect of the wedding will be done or fixed  in “exactly and approximately” five minutes. But he also tries to deescalate:

“Are we husband and wife, Sir, that we must argue every single morning?”

Dubey is unmarried, with a hen-pecking mother who berates him every day because he hasn’t given her a grandchild. He becomes the unlikely protagonist of the least expected, and most heartwarming, of the love stories, when he has a run-in with the Vermas’ feisty maid Alice  (Anisha Nagarajan), and falls fast for her.

There is also a subplot, which I won’t spoil, involving what Nair describes in her program note as “twisted love that has never been love at all but has afflicted so many families everywhere” – the one story that largely explains why the musical is recommended for ages 12 and over.

There are other serious issues touched on in “Monsoon Wedding” – toxic masculinity, the effects of globalization, religious chauvinism — some of which weren’t as explicit in the movie (although Nair certainly hasn’t shied away from serious subject matter even in her most charming films, such as “Mississippi Masala,” the 1991 film starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury that explores the fallout from an interracial relationship.)

But the hints of darkness in this musical are crowded out by the light. Even the withering of love gets a comic spin; in “Aunties are Coming,” the woman explain in song what married life turns into:

Aches and Pains?
His are chronic
Thank God
For my gin and tonic

There is a fifth kind of love that suffuses “Monsoon Wedding,” which contains all the other forms of love and then some – the love of Indian culture. It’s  in the two dozen songs, which lovers of Indian music will recognize as raag, thumri, khayal, qawwali, Pasoori, and Indian pop, but the rest of us will identify from the special sounds made by Indian percussive instruments and the sitar. It’s in the free use of Hindi words and phrases; there’s a glossary in the program,  but I think most Brooklyn theatergoers already know that “daal” are lentils and “roti” is flatbread, and can figure out most of the rest. And the love of Indian culture is in the hint of Bollywood excess. As invigorating as the full-company dance numbers choreographed by Shampa Gopikrishna, I found myself more and more welcoming of the quieter ballads.  

I saw a production of this musical at Berkeley Rep in 2017,  I found it full of delightful moments, but  thought it might need some streamlining. It was 135 minutes then (including an intermission) – a little longer than the movie, even though it had cut some of the characters. “Monsoon Wedding”  at St. Ann’s Warehouse is  now 150 minutes, fifteen minutes longer. It still may need some streamlining. I still find it delightful.

Monsoon Wedding
St Ann’s Warehouse through June 25, 2023
Running time: 150 minutes, including intermission.
Book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan
Music by Vishal Bhardwaj
Lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead
Conceived and directed by Mira Nair
Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West, lighting design by Bradley King, projection design by David Bengali, and costume design Arjun Bhasin
Orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi and Rona Siddiqui, Music Supervisor & Director Emily Whitaker, music producer Sunny Jain
Choreographer Shampa Gopikrishna, movement director Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
Cast: Namit Das (PK Dubey), Sharvari Deshpande (Ria), and Gagan Dev Riar (Lalit), Manik Anand (Vikram/Ensemble), Sargam Ipshita Bali (Shashi/Ensemble), Meetu Chilana (Saroj Rai/Ensemble), Savidu Geevaratne (Tamezuddin), Palomi Ghosh (Pimmi/ Ensemble) Bhaskar Jha (Bholuram/Ensemble), Deven Kolluri (Hemant), Miriam A. Laube (Vijaya/Ensemble), Sharayu Mahale (Ensemble), Anu Mysore (Ensemble), Anisha Nagarajan (Alice), Jamen Nanthakumar (Lottery), Shreya Navile (Ensemble),  Nasir Panjwani, Salena Qureshi (Aditi), Jonathan Raviv (Mohan Rai/ME), Devina Sabnis (Ensemble), SEVAN (CL), Kinshuk Sen (Varun), Alok Tewari (Tej), Aathaven Tharmarajah, and Rhea Yadav (Aliya).

Photographs by Matthew Murphy\\

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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