Theater Review: THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (The Old Globe in San Diego)

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by Tony Frankel on July 18, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


More precious than profound, this new family musical is pure children’s theater with multilayered storytelling and plenty of songs that aid in exposition. The world premiere at The Old Globe is delightful, even if there are some flaws in the arc that keep the show from building in suspense. Thankfully, it is neither cloying nor pandering, given the infectious, inventive, ingenious, invigorating and multi-talented cast of PigPen Theatre Company, which takes on The Tale of Despereaux, adapted here by the game ensemble from Kate DiCamillo’s book and the Universal film of the same name.

The main characters are Despereaux (Bianca Norwood, an earnest and plucky dynamo), a scrawny little mouse (even by mouse standards) with enormous courage and even bigger ears; Roscuro (Eric Petersen), a rat more interested in the light above than the dank dungeon below; the princess, Pea (Taylor Iman Jones); and her servant girl Miggery Sow (Betsy Morgan). Despereaux becomes enthralled by the idea of chivalry, honor and doing battle with evil by reading books in the castle library (it isn’t clear how rats and mice can talk to humans, but should it be?). He becomes convinced that he must rescue Princess Pea from her lonely existence in her unhappy castle and Kingdom of Dor. Because of his bravery, he becomes an outcast among mice, who value cowardice, while Roscuro causes an accident that plunges the castle into a dark spell. Narrated to us by a librarian (sweet-voiced Ryan Melia, sounding like a youthful Michael Crawford), the 90-minute one-act, like the book, is told in parts (or chapters).

There’s plenty of ideas here: poverty, bigotry, slavery, hatred, envy, treachery, death, cowardice and totalitarianism, which — along with some characters about-facing — may confuse little ones. Marc Bruni, co-directing with the cast, and choreographer Jennifer Jancuska certainly know how to fill the stage with complexity and sophistication — it’s Story Theater on steroids. It’s definitely enchanting, and more creative than a Rubik’s Cube, but the production moves way too fast at times, as if it’s afraid of losing our attention.

It’s Ratatouille meets Upstairs Downstairs — two rodents dream to be in a world outside of their own in a castle where a princess and her serving girl both desire a way out of their station in life. If that all sounds familiar from fantasy tales since day one, it is. As such, we can almost sense where the story is going, and unfortunately that’s not helped by themes such as guilt and mistakes that are repeated too often, and songs that are also somewhat repetitive in idea. Very few tunes actually stick, as they’re a bit generic, but there are some outstanding lyrics — an internal rhyme of “common sense is” and “consequences” thrilled me. Under Christopher Jahnke’s music direction, the vocally sterling cast plays all sorts of wonderful instruments with flair; flute, banjo, guitars, melodica, violin, and assorted percussion enliven the proceedings, as tunes are flavored by danse macabre waltz, rap, folk, Celtic, and showtunes among others.

Where Despereaux truly casts a spell is in the stagecraft. Jason Sherwood’s stationary set includes Gothic window frames and a back wall made of differently shaped bowls that resemble large mouse ears. Fantastic lights are necessary and we get those in full from Isabella Byrd with great shafts of luminescence, stained-glass effects, and lanterns; it’s a truly spectacular design. Even costume designer Anita Yavich gets in on that action with dark hoods that have glowing red rat eyes. Also highly imaginative are the shadow sequences and puppet designs of Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane.

Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler, Matt Nuernberger, Misters Lehane and Melia formed this intrepid company in their freshman year at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2008, and their united joy of creation permeates all parts of the production. The company comfortably swaps characters and instruments, moving fabrics, props and puppets in an exhilarating fruitful harmony with each other. As with The Old Man and the Old Moon, which played the Globe in 2017, their long-form narrative work still needs refining, and I hope that they continue to work on Despereaux. As it stands, however, prepare to be inspired by a wondrous troupe and a potent story.

photos by Jim Cox

The Tale of Despereaux
The Old Globe
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
ends on August 11, 2019
for tickets, call 619.234-5623
or visit The Old Globe

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