The downside to creating a brilliant show comes later, when you create one that’s merely good. When Pigpen Theatre Company came to the Old Globe in 2017 to perform their original story, The Old Man and the Old Moon, it was a revelation. By comparison, the company’s world premiere musical, The Tale of Despereaux, is simply adequate.
Set in a castle in the fictional kingdom of Dor. The story follows Despereaux (Bianca Norwood), an iconoclastic mouse who likes to read books – instead of eating them – and wants to be a hero. On the other side, Roscuro (Eric Petersen) is a dungeon-dwelling rat who yearns for the light. Despereaux’s journey is populated by a variety of mice, rats and humans, both royal and common.
Pigpen’s players, and the actors they’ve recruited for the show, are amazingly talented, particularly Norwood. They sing and play beautifully and bring exceptional energy to the production. But they seem stifled, as if they don’t have enough to do. In The Old Man and the Old Moon, actors held hands to form impromptu boats, carried cannonballs to mimic a naval battle and provided many other creative flourishes. But here, they seemed to run out of tools. Rodent puppetry is really cute, but it can only take the show so far.
The Tale of Despereaux is a children’s fable adapted to the stage. The structure is sound, but it mostly lacks the extra layers of complexity that would make it interesting for adults. The fleeting Ingmar Bergman reference only reminded me they could have done more.
I don’t know if it’s fair to judge Pigpen by their past success. But the group is so immensely talented, I just wanted them to live up to that. In the end, The Tale of Despereaux is a great kid’s story. Bring the little ones to a matinee, they will eat it up.