For one wonderful moment, it sounds and looks as if Mira Nair’s stage adaption of her 2001 film, “Monsoon Wedding,” has taken a page from George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” It comes early in the first act of this new musical when three families in Delhi, India, welcome an Indian-American family from Hoboken into their home. The families have arranged a marriage between the young woman Aditi Verma and Hemant Rai, an up-and-coming banker from New Jersey. The bouncy, infectious song being sung by no fewer than 10 characters is titled “We Are Like This Only” and everyone keeps insisting that they’re having “fun fun fun” all the way to Aditi and Hemant’s wedding. The bachelor Bobby in “Company” could be said to have too many married friends. Aditi and Hemant definitely have too many relatives. What could anything possibly go wrong with their engagement and wedding?
The new stage musical “Monsoon Wedding” opened May 22 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and except for “We Are Like This Only,” the show lacks focus focus focus.
A musical about an arranged marriage needs to ask and quickly answer the question, Where is the love? Composer Vishal Bhardwaj and lyricists Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead deliver the answer with a conditional love song. Instead of putting it at the top of the show, however, Aditi and Hemant (Salena Qureshi and Deven Kolluri in fine voice) sing “Could You Have Loved Me” about halfway through Act 2. Even more problematic is that Aditi is introduced to us with an ongoing argument she’s having with her lover, Vikram (Manik Singh Anand), who like a lot of married locked into affairs with single women in the workplace, is a real cad. Most baffling, late in “Monsoon Wedding,” this fraught illicit affair is explained away as a sign of Aditi’s status as a young liberated woman.
A musical with a messy love story rather than a strong love story is a musical that’s in deep trouble. The solution for book writers Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan (who also wrote the screenplay) is to introduce a second love story, which, unfortunately, generates little more heat than Aditi and Hemant’s non-affair. In this secondary plotline, the wedding planner Dubey (Namit Das) falls in love with the Verma family’s maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan), but apparently doesn’t know her any better than he would a mail-order bride. No sooner does Dubey declare his love than he expects Alice to give up her Catholicism. A weak wordsmith, Alice retorts in song, “So I am not Hindu/Why does it matter to you?” That little deal-breaker is resolved almost as soon as it is introduced when Dubey’s mother (Sargam Ipshita Bali) begs her son to follow his dream with “The Heart Knows,” a song title, among many here, that defines the word “derivative.” Never asked is how such a freethinking mother raised such a Neanderthal?
Mukherjee and Dhawan don’t introduce a conflict that they can’t resolve in record speed. Even a big fight over money between the Hoboken family (the book is loaded with bad Jersey jokes) and the Delhi families is quickly swept under the colorful saris. Clearly, “Monsoon Wedding” needs a Big Reveal in act two to keep our attention. It pops up out of nowhere two hours into the show, and proves to be far more arresting than any plot twists preceding it. Broadway musicals used to have what’s called the Eleven O’Clock Number. “Monsoon Wedding” is the first to have an Eleven O’Clock Bombshell.
How good a musical theater director is the film director Mira Nair? “Monsoon Wedding” fails even to turn the bride’s entrance in her wedding dress (a gorgeous ensemble by Arjun Bhasi) into an event worth stopping the show. Much more damaging, Mukherjee and Dhawan’s book lifts fragments from the movie without bothering to meld them into cogent scenes, and Nair’s slack direction only emphasizes the disconnect. She often lets one character slowly exit the stage while others take their time to move into place.
The stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse is part of the problem here. This performing space has taken many forms since the theater moved into its new space, an old tobacco factory, in 2015. Of all those configurations, the huge thrust stage designed by Jason Ardizzone-West for “Monsoon Wedding” may be the least intimate. This family drama needs a living room, not a stadium. David Bengali’s delightful projection designs often give us something to look at when the actors prove to be far less dazzling.