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Monday, April 6, 2020

PIGPEN THEATRE CO. RETURNS TO SAN DIEGO’S OLD GLOBE WITH ENCHANTING NEW MUSICAL “THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX”

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By Lisa Lyons

It seems these days that we are all “holding out for a hero” – Robert Mueller anyone? – but sometimes the hero might turn out to be a small mouse with huge ears. The premise of PigPen Theatre Co.’s “The Tale of Despereaux” is that a tiny mouse with big dreams can affect the destiny of not only a beautiful Princess but the entire Kingdom of Dor.

Based on the best-selling children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, “The Tale of Despereaux,” a charming fairy tale of a brave little mouse, was first made into an animated film by Universal Pictures. When Universal decided to musical-ize the story for the stage, the innovative and talented PigPen Theatre Co. was their first choice to adapt it for the stage. The PigPen company previously graced the Old Globe with their original “The Old Man and The Old Moon” and if the wildly enthusiastic greeting the company received as the lights went up is any indication, they are crowd favorites. And, wow, did they deliver the goods on opening night.

If you are not familiar with the seven men who make up PigPen, they are all graduates of Carnegie-Mellon, one of the premier drama schools in the country. They have intimacy and shared rhythm, which makes the collaborative process a thing of beauty. For this production, they have added three talented women to the group, and they more than hold their own.

From the opening number of the show (did I mention that all the members also play the instruments including banjo, assorted percussion, and accordion), we know we are in for a treat. Despereaux (winningly portrayed by petite Bianca Norwood)  is an inquisitive young mouse, living in the palace of the King of Dor. The Kingdom is in dark despair since the Queen died of fright on her birthday when a rat dropped from the Great Hall chandelier into her soup. Since then, the King has declared that rats, soup and revelry are strictly forbidden. Sadness envelops the palace and weighs heavy on the tragic and lovely Princess Pea (a radiant Taylor Iman Jones). Despereaux is imaginative and open (perhaps too open?) to all aspects of his below-stairs life in the castle kitchen. When his worried parents ask his older siblings Merlot (also played by Ms. Jones) and Furlough (a scene-stealing Ben Ferguson) to wise him up a little, things don’t go as expected. An encounter with a “Knight” who steps out of a stained glass window and introduces Despereaux to the world of books in the castle library, giving the young rodent his raison d’etre. He will become a Knight and rescue his damsel in distress –  Princess Pea! And the saga unfolds with a melodic score that will remind you a little of Sondheim in the most glorious way.

Every one of the talented performers on this stage will dazzle you with their prodigious gifts. All of them play multiple roles, often in the same scene, as well as play instruments,  dance…they bring you to both gentle tears and subtle laughs.

Favorite moments? Furlough making his slo-mo disco moves during his “We Know Better” number; the beautiful side by side duet “With a Needle and Thread” of Princess Pea and the lowly servant Miggery Sow (silvery soprano Betsy Morgan) as both long to live each other’s life; the shadowed haunted eyes of Roscuro the Rat (a deeply soulful Eric Petersen) whose fascination with the light tragically draws him down into the darkness; the amazing pompadour of Botticelli (eye-candy Matt Nuernberger), the Mrs. Doubtfire-like star turn of Curtis Gillen as the inimitable castle cook Louise; copper-haired Ryan Melia who brings both the castle Librarian and the Mysterious Prisoner to life; the delightful song and dance of Dan Weschler’s Stained Glass Knight, the amazing eyebrows of Arya Shahi’s King Phillip, and Lester’s (Alex Falberg) masterful banjo fingerings. If I missed anyone, I apologize – but I don’t apologize for saying I LOVED this show.

Highest praise for the production values – the seamless co-direction of Marc Bruni and the PigPen company members makes this 90-minute show seem effortless, but you can see and feel the hard-earned results. Choreography by Jennifer Jancuska is simple yet perfect for the setting. The creative team consists of Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood, Costume Designer Anita Yavich, Lighting Designer Isabella Byrd, Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg, Shadow Sequences and Puppetry Designers Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane, and Music Director Christopher Jahnke – each one a master in their own right. Finally, kudos to Production Stage Manager Libby Unsworth for keeping everything spinning like a top.

If you believe in big heroes and small miracles, do yourself a favor and treat your family to a night of theatre that will reawaken forgotten dreams and lead you back toward the glorious light.

Don’t miss it!

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