Bay Area Theater

Review: The Tale of Despereaux, at Berkeley Rep

KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “The Tale of Despereaux” at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through January 5, 2020.

Text of review (audio version contains actuality from co-director Marc Bruni and other changes).

Most classic fairy tales come down to us through history and the Brothers Grimm. But over the years, there have also been new fairy tales, stories that enchant younger generations, which over time will become classics in their own way.

One such story was “The Tale of Despereaux” written by Kate DiCamillo and published in 2003, which went on to win a Newberry Award and was adapted into an animated film in 2007. Now, “The Tale of Despereaux,” which tells the story of a young mouse with big ears, a rat with big ideas, and a kingdom damaged by grief, has become a musical created by the Pig Pen Theatre Company, at Berkeley Rep through January 5th.

In translating animated films to the stage, Disney has gone all-out with high tech special effects that could never be duplicated or even attempted in school and community theatres. Despereaux takes a different route: using theatrical tricks that have been in operation for decades, even centuries.

With puppets, dolls, shadow imagery, and all sorts of theatrical legerdemain, and most importantly, the audience’s imagination, The Tale of Despereaux emerges as a unique theatrical event.

The seven members of Pigpen play musical instruments throughout, and the cast is augmented by John Rapson, in fine Jean Valjean voice as the rat Roscuro, Dorcas Leung as the spunky mouse Despereaux, and other actors in multiple rolesThe songs, which come in quick succession, one after another, veer toward Les Miz at one end, and country or rock at the other. The eclecticism is fun, to be sure, but it adds up to a show without a single musical voice to carry it through. And even at a brisk 90 minutes, it can feel a bit long toward the end..

That’s the down side. The upside is a show for the whole family, that deals with adult concepts like grief, revenge, and most notably redemption.

During a time when most of Bay Area venues are showing Ebenezer Scrooge and Jane Austin and Santa Claus, an original holiday musical about rats and mice that surprises and delights in its cleverness and humanity is a welcome relief.

The Tale of Despereaux, from the Pig Pen Theatre company and co-directed by Marc Bruni, plays at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through January 5th. For more information, you can go to berkeleyrep.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theatre for KPFA.

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