“The world is dark, and light is precious,” writes Kate DiCamillo in her novel The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. Where are we to find that precious light? In stories.
As you probably guessed from the title, Despereaux is a fairy tale, and not one of those fashionably ironic, upside-down ones like Wicked. Nope. This is a straight-up tale of heroism, which Pig Pen Theater embraces and adapts deftly into a musical.
As the story begins, small-even-for-a-mouse Despereaux comes into the world in a very un-mouse-like way: with his eyes wide open. He also has enormous ears, and he is always forgetting to scurry. In desperation at his lack of mousiness, his family takes him to the palace library for a lecture and a sensible meal of old paper. Left to himself, he does devour books — but their stories rather than their stuff. In them, he learns about honor, courage, and truthfulness, so when he meets the princess he introduces himself as a gentleman and promises to honor her as her knight. He charmingly mispronounces “hhhonor” and “kuh-night.”
Despereaux’s nemesis is the rat Roscuro — which is short for Chiaroscuro — light and dark. It turns out that as a lad, Chiaroscuro was very un-rat-like in his love of light over darkness. But rat life is hard, so he turns his back on the light. That first love, however, will prove the key to the story’s resolution.
Running full-throttle with the theme of light and dark, the lighting for this production is so integral and beautifully done that it almost functions as another character, bathing the story alternately in light, color, and shadow. Lighting also does the lion’s share of the work in maintaining the suspension of disbelief during the transitions from the human to the rodent-sized: the delightful and seamless transitions of scale, in which mouse-characters are played by human actors, but interact with human characters only via puppets in the hands of the actor. It’s a simple idea, but cleverly realized.
Likewise, the set is simple, functional, beautiful — and thematic. It is a palace built of soup bowls. I’ll let you discover for yourselves why. But let me point out that soup is a humble affair, yet a good soup finds a way to blend many different flavors to create one whole.
Pig Pen seems a perfect fit for adapting Despereaux into a musical. You may know them from their 2017 Old Globe production of The Old Man and the Old Moon, another fairy tale. So, is their work meant for children or adults? When asked, the company replied, “If a story doesn’t connect with an adult, why would they want to share it with their child? And if a story doesn’t connect with a child — well, where’s the fun in that?”
This production is near perfect. But a critic should be critical of something, right? So, please adjust the instrumental amplification so the clever lyrics can be heard.