He’s the mouse that roared (in an unprepossessing kind of way). Big ears, huge heart, unflagging curiosity — and an unquenchable desire to be a courageous, dragon-slaying, Princess-rescuing hero.
That’s “The Tale of Despereaux,” as told in a world premiere musical at The Old Globe.
The show is based on Kate DiCamillo’s beloved 2003 Newbery Medal-winning fantasy novel, and the 2008 Universal Pictures computer-generated animated film it inspired.
The new piece, commissioned by Universal Theatrical, which granted The Old Globe the rights to the world premiere, is the first book musical ever created by the wildly imaginative, multi-platform phenomenon, PigPen Theatre Co.
The seven mega-talented Pig-men, who met in theater class at Carnegie Mellon University, were at The Globe in 2017 with the West coast premiere of their acclaimed fable, “The Old Man and The Old Moon.” Like that play-with-music, this full-on musical features PigPen’s unique brand of theatermaking: a magical mix of homespun ingenuity, low-tech stage wizardry, 3-D and shadow puppetry, and expert musicianship. Each PigPen member plays at least one instrument; their voices blend beautifully in their signature folk-Americana style.
This fable, like life itself, is all about darkness and light.
Rule-bound, fearful mice scurry about in the light. Mean-spirited rats live in darkness and hate the light.
But there are two exceptions in this animal kingdom: Roscuro the rat (powerful, compelling Eric Peterson), whose full name Chiaroscuro, facetiously given by his parents, is derived from the visual art concept of juxtaposing light and dark, actually craves the light, and would give anything to rise from his place in the castle dungeon of the Kingdom of Dor.
Despereaux (delightful Bianca Norwood, a Juilliard student making an impressive professional debut) flouts his community’s rules by reading — instead of eating — a book. His other infractions, worthy of being sent to the darkness of the dungeon: talking to humans — and falling in love with one. The book he reads inspires him to become a knight and honor the Princess Pea, who just lost her mother due to an unfortunate misstep by Roscuro in his own quest.
The Princess (lovely Taylor Iman Jones) has a story, too, about her parents, and the tapestry she’s trying to create to represent, and maybe bring back, the light, happy days before her mother died of shock (a rat in your soup can do that).
Then there’s the Princess’ servant, Miggery Sow (amusing, strong-voiced Betsy Morgan), who lost her mother, too, and was sold off by her father. She’d love to be a Princess; the Princess, not so much.
The four strands of the tale are tied together, aptly enough, by a Librarian (funny multi-instrumentalist Ryan Melia). The chapter names are projected on the gorgeously cluttered, multi-level set (Jason Sherwood) which is spectacularly lit (Isabella Byrd). The sound (Nevin Steinberg), some of which is created Foley-style, onstage, adds dimensionality, as do the costumes (Anita Yavich) and adorable, peewee puppets (Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane), which help maintain the illusion of size discrepancy among the characters.
The welcome addition of four non-PigPen actors intensifies the breadth and expands the perspectives.
The Globe production is superb. Though the book was intended for children, the themes clearly apply to adults as well: the perils of individualism and its potential for punishment; the despair of loss and loneliness; the desire for revenge; the benefits of loyalty; and the capacity for forgiveness. Truths are revealed about human (and animal) nature, with the timely caveat that you shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you read.
The darker elements add depth, but the fairy tale ending is one of light restored.
This thoroughly enchanting 90-minute, intergenerational musical reminds us that, as the opening song has it, “in every heart, there is light and darkness.” In a captivating, highly theatrical way, it shows the importance of empathy and understanding. And wouldn’t we all benefit from shining a light on that right now?
- “The Tale of Despereaux” runs through Aug. 11 on The Old Globe’s Shiley Stage in Balboa Park
- Performances are Tuesday-Friday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m.
- Running Time: 90 min.
- Tickets (starting at $30 for children and $40 for adults) are at 619-234-5623 or TheOldGlobe.org
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.