There’s a raucous Indian wedding party taking place nightly on the Brooklyn waterfront, and we’re all invited. The fun spills over onto the esplanade outside St Ann’s Warehouse, where the band parades before showtime and the entrances to the auditorium are playfully labeled “Bride’s side” and “Groom’s side.” This emphasis on the experience is sure to appeal to fans of the current streaming hit Indian Matchmaking, but may leave devotees of the original 2001 film Monsoon Wedding yearning for some of that version’s subtlety and nuance.
Mira Nair, who conceived and directed the film, is also in charge here, but the movie’s plot has been simplified by writers Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan (also the original film’s screenwriter), who play up the comedic elements of the arranged marriage story. A Hindi glossary in the program and a helpful family tree to keep the characters straight help to position the show for a broader–and potentially a Broadway?—audience.
The seating, arranged around three sides of the stage, contributes to the immersive feeling of participating in this family wedding, where Aditi (Salena Qureshi), a pretty young Indian woman with a secret, will marry Princeton grad Hemant (Deven Kolluri), of Indian background but from New Jersey. They meet for the first time just days before the wedding. We are transported to Delhi by Jason Ardizzone-West’s multi-level set and David Bengali’s vibrant backdrop projections. Musicians, including sitar and sousaphone players Soumitra Thakur and Kenny Bentley, sit either side of the stage; the foot-tapping score by Vishal Bhardwaj draws on a wide variety of Indian musical genres, including the latest pop and Bollywood tunes.
The heart and soul of the show is PK Dubey—the impish Namit Das—who is the wedding planner/wheeler dealer in a pink safari suit. He’s in charge of the ropes of marigolds, the tents, the black label Johnnie Walker, and even extra toilet paper supplies to cater to the American guests’ needs. The show zooms in on these cultural tensions between the “real” Indians and their relatives who have moved abroad, with numerous quips such as expat Indians being so American because they practice yoga and don’t smoke.
Dubey is looking for love himself and finds it in Alice, the maid of the bride’s family. Anisha Nagarajan does a winsome turn in the role and is—like Das and many other cast members—a truly superb singer. Unlike the movie, the musical makes much of the fact that Alice is Christian while Dubey is Hindu. Luckily, Dubey’s no-nonsense mother, the delightful Sargam Ipshita Bali, has no truck with the religious divide and solves it by designating days of the week to each faith. (This feels like a subtle reference to increased Hindu nationalism in present day India, which may not be so easily resolved.) Dubey chases after Alice in a hilarious train scene where the passengers jiggle along over the rails.
While religious strife is quickly dispatched, the other serious element of the show sits awkwardly in the second act, when the bride-to-be’s cousin Ria (Sharvari Deshpande) reveals a family secret that threatens to upend the wedding for a second time. (The bride and groom had earlier experienced a brief break-up and make-up.) The creepy nature of Ria’s revelation is seamlessly integrated into the film version, but here seems undermined by the narrative’s inevitable need to get back to more jolly singing and dancing.
Many of the songs have clever lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead—for example, making fun of the Indian elite who have “the new Lamborghinis, the heated spas, got to have their Ferraris, Gucci, Prada, no saris.” The double-entendre laden number “Aunties Are Coming,” where the older ladies recall their own wedding nights, brought the house down. However, occasional narrative oddities crop up, such as Jersey boy Hemant claiming to have grown up with tornadoes. Many jokes also fly straight over the heads of non-Hindi-speaking theatergoers.
The other stars of the show are the glorious costumes by Arjun Bhasin. Even if the show seems to unashamedly embrace a theme-park version of India, the variety of designs and fabrics from bedazzled hot pants to hand-loomed cotton kurtas and splendid saris provides a textile feast.
With no shortage of fun, frivolity, and family, and a predictable but irresistible all-singing all-dancing finale, Monsoon Wedding provides a delightful antidote to the isolated gloom of recent times and reminds us that life is better together with all our relations and friends.