Mouse, rat, princess emerge as superb fable for adults, kids

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★★

Despereaux (Dorcas Leung, center), Furlough (Ben Ferguson, left) and Merlot (Yasmeen Sulieman) handle puppets in “The Tale of Despereaux.” Photo: Kevin Berne.

I’d label “The Tale of Despereaux: A New Musical” fabulous — meaning it’s, by definition of the word, incredible, extraordinarily unusual, superb.

I’d also label “The Tale of Despereaux: A New Musical” a fable — meaning it’s, by definition of the word, a moral tale about critters with human characteristics.

It follows then that the 95-minute, intermission-less show at the Berkeley Rep with fetching book, music and lyrics by the PigPen Theater Co. is, from my standpoint, a fabulous fable that appeals to old and young.

For confirmation, ask my 12-year-old granddaughter and/or 80-year-old wife, both of whom accompanied me opening night.

Each of us believes “Despereaux” to be one of the most charming productions we’ve seen in years, one that allows our imaginations to easily flit around and parallel those of the show’s creator/performers.

The storyline is straightforward, in a fairytale way.

Dorcas Leung (Despereaux, left) and John Rapson (Roscuro) cross swords (of sorts) in the Berkeley Rep’s “Despereaux.” Photo: Kevin Berne.

Despereaux — a curious tiny mouse with big ears who’s a hopeful dreamer despite his French name meaning despair — pauses long enough on his courageous quest as a self-styled knight to slay a dragon to fall for a human princess and cross swords with a seemingly villainous rat.

PigPen seamlessly integrates doll-like puppets, shadow play, flashlights and quick lighting shifts — as well as wavering colored sheets and a multiplicity of sound effects.

Most noteworthy in a totally outstanding 11-person cast are Dorcas Leung as Despereaux, who becomes a pariah in his community partially because he’s obsessively drawn to reading stories about humans; John Rapson as Roscuro, the light-craving rat apparently condemned to darkness; Betsy Morgan as servant-girl Miggery Sow who desperately yearns to be a princess; Yasmen Sulieman as a triple-character threat (Princess Pea, Queen Rosemary and Antoinette); and Curtis Gillen in the comic, gender-bending role of Louise, a cook.

Members of the troupe, which has also toured extensively as a band, accompany the action by shimmying onstage while playing a mélange of instruments (including violin, guitar, banjo, flute and drums).

Superlatively backing everything up are Donald Holder, whose lighting designs are breathtaking; Jennifer Jancuska, whose captivating choreography emphasizes robotic arm movements; Marc Bruni, co-director perhaps best known for his work on “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” the Broadway hit; and Jason Sherwood, whose bi-level set design includes an elaborate backdrop, platforms on which to romp and a pole to slide down.

Other items to note about the show that debuted last year at The Old Globe in San Diego and contains 15 musical numbers and two reprises, are:

  • The anthropomorphic rodents in “Despereaux,” which is based on the 2004 Newbery Award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo and the 2008 Universal Pictures animated film, speak English and sing with the skill of operatic luminaries.
  • Actors often become handlers of their counterpart puppets, alternating the action between the pint-size creations and life-size adults.
  • PigPen claims — most likely tongue-in-cheek — that it tried training live mice for years before deciding to use puppets.

No matter what, my review can’t do justice to this offbeat tale of mouse and men: It’s that good, that delightful.

“The Tale of Despereaux” plays at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Jan. 5. Night performances, 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees, 2 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets: $15 to $100, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →