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The Tale of Despereaux
He is the title character of Kate DiCamillo's award-winning 2003 book The Tale of Despereaux and, subsequently, of the 2008 Universal animated movie. This tale is now a wondrous musical enjoying its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre under the skilled hands of the PigPen Theatre Company. And if you have not yet heard that name, then get thee to their sty without delay. Enchantment awaits.
They may even be coming to a theater near you. although not necessarily with Despereaux. The seven-member troupe of actor/musicians has been playing together since their undergraduate days at Carnegie-Mellon University. In addition to performing as a band, PigPen has toured extensively with the fable The Old Man and the Old Moon. The company is currently at work on a musical adaptation of Water for Elephants with Jersey Boys' Rick Elice.
Despereaux could eventually tour, although given the production values at the Old Globe, it might not travel quite as easily as The Old Man and the Old Moon. Plus the company would need room for additional luggage. For this venture, PigPen has expanded its circle and more than doubled the number of players. Most of Despereaux's leading roles, in fact, are played by PigPen newbies, several of whom have Broadway credits.
The blend is seamless. Under the direction of the company and Marc Bruni, the Globe's production is a marvelous tale. Much in the spirit of past PigPen performances, Despereaux is narratively quirky and visually splendid, a feast for the ears and eyes.. Devotees of the book and the movie can anticipate having your expectations and your sensibilities tickled. Oh, you'll see mice, rats and a stained glass knight, but this book-and-cel-to-stage treatment in no way resembles the Broadway versions of say, Shrek or anything in the Disney slate. In the hands of PigPen and director Marc Bruni, pageantry gives way to creativity. Despereaux is a smaller, more intimate tale.
A significant part of Despereaux's magic is its use of light. This is a tale, after all, of a kingdom cast into shadows, of creatures banished to dungeons who are now looking hopefully, or fearfully, up toward the glow above. Lighting designer Isabella Byrd fashions a beautiful tableau of gloom and brightness, with shafts piercing the darkness. The play's other leading rodent is a rat names Roscuro, short for chiaroscuro meaning the artistic blend of dark and light. And Roscuro (played by Eric Petersen) is every bit at home in Byrd's arena.
Our setting is the Kingdom of Dor where an unwanted appearance by Roscuro at a royal birthday banquet many years ago sets the tale in motion. The death of the queen prompts the banishment of all rats (as well as of soup). The King (Arya Shahi) falls into a distracted funk, leaving his daughter Princess Pea (Taylor Iman Jones) lonely and neglected. Her only friend is a sweet but not very competent serving wench, Miggery Sow (Betsy Morgan), who dreams of being a princess.
Little Despereaux (Bianca Norwood), meanwhile, has giant ears and a heart to match. With little patience for crumb-foraging, Despereaux breaks with his family and ends up meeting the Princess. Besotted, he takes to the palace library where he consults a Stained-Glass Knight (Dan Weschler), learns the rules of chivalry, and decides to bring the rat who brought this pall on the kingdom to justice. "I will honor you," Despereaux tells Princess Pea, giving the word honor a hard "h." And so he shall, but the task is not so easy when the world is big and one is but a few inches tall.
Norwood's titular mouse is up to the challenge. Her Despereaux has plenty of spunk, hope, and defiance mixed with an appropriate dose of self-doubt. Jones's Princess is certainly a lady worthy of Despereaux's quest, and her scenes with Morgan's marvelous Miggery work some solid sisterly bonding. Also on the non-human side, Petersen is a charismatically conflicted Roscuro. As Rat King Botticelli, Matt Nuernberger and a whole bunch of glowing red eyes leads a fetching rendition of "Dark Beautiful World" welcoming Despereaux to the dungeons.
In addition to appearing as shadow puppets (designed by Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane), Despereaux, Roscuro and other assorted rodents are occasionally represented as small white and gray hand puppets that appear on the floor, on a table or at a person's shoulder. More often, Petersen, Norwood and the rest appear as themselves with no elaborate costumes of cutesy animal gimmickry. It's all deftly handled.
Musically, all is well. The PigPen ensemble members play close to a dozen instruments and their folk-rock sound lends itself well to this kind of musical theater. Weschler's Stained-Glass Knight expertly paces the knightly instruction number "Hey You Know Me." Playing a rueful Prisoner, Ryan Melia brings a healthy dose of sorrow to "Love is Ridiculous." Melia also excels as the tale's narrator, a librarian who opens the evening with the benediction "you're here to hear a story."
Indeed we are, and Kate DiCamillo, Marc Bruni and the PigPeners collectively know how to tell one. Score one for the mouse and for the artists who helped bring him to life.
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The Tale of Despereaux
Book, Music and Lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo and the Universal Pictures animated film
Directed by Marc Bruni and PigPen Theatre Co.
Cast: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Taylor Iman Jones, Ryan Melia, Betsy Morgan, Bianca Norwood, Matt Nuernberger, Eric Petersen, Arya Shaki, Dan Weschler, Michael Cusimano, Natasha Harris, Devon Hunt
Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg
Shadow Sequences and Puppetry Design: Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane
Choreography: Jennifer Jancuska
Music Director and additional arrangements: Christopher Jahnke
Stage Manager: Libby Unsworth
Plays through August 11, 2019 at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623, www.theoldglobe.com
Running time: one hours and 30 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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