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Swiss Family Robinson

nytheatre.com review by Gianfranco Lentini
July 13, 2013

Swiss Family Robinson

Matt Mundy, Elisa Van Duyne, Paul DeBoy, Michael Lorz and Sergio Pasquariello in a scene from Swiss Family Robinson | Seth Walters

Can you fathom what it’s like to be shipwrecked?

Well, that’s exactly what this year’s NYMF show Swiss Family Robinson will undoubtedly teach you. Book by John Kennedy and Patrick Kennedy, music and lyrics by John Kennedy, and directed by Patrick Kennedy, this sea-faring musical comedy spends two and a half hours taking its audience on an adventure that many of us will remember having read in our youth.

Swiss Family Robinson, the book upon which this new musical is adapted , was written by Johann David Wyss in 1812 as a tool to help educate his four sons about family values and the world around them. Might it be safe to say, lest his ghost comes back to haunt this article, this is a production Wyss would be proud of. Having reconstructed the original novel, introducing many new characters and entwining plotlines, the Kennedy’s have developed their own “Robinson” piece that will easily find space in our hearts next to the original.

However, never fear for those learning of the Swiss Family Robinson for the first time! Opening the show with a rousing, maritime number as a means of introduction into this classic world, the audience meets the title family: Paul DeBoy (John), Elisa Van Duyne (Elizabeth), Sergio Pasquariello (Fritz), Matt Mundy (Jack), and Michael Lorz (Ernst). Accompanied by a cast of 12 (making for a grand total of 17!), the story begins and we set sail onto an island unknown, meeting a band of want-to-be pirates and fierce natives who may be the Amazonians. Complete with a highly entertaining libretto, the audience is left tapping their toes rather than flipping the pages of this story.

Resembling the innovation of Peter and the Starcatcher that shot it to its Broadway stardom, Swiss Family Robinson depends heavily on the creativity and imagination that goes into making theatre a piece of art. What appears to be a minimal production upon entering the theatre is quickly replaced with the intensity and complexity of movement, sight, and sound, showing that three platforms, a couple of umbrellas, and a scrim can go a very long way transforming the space into a remote, tropical island. Partnered with a swift and speedy crew, Swiss Family Robinson appears to be ready for any challenge live theatre can bring.

With honorable mention to direction by Patrick Kennedy and choreography by Walter Kennedy, the audience rides the waves with the family on the perilous sea, hunts across the island with the Hufi, and searches for unrequited love with Captain Francois DuBois. Heartfelt moments in direction are cleverly balanced by big, ensemble numbers that never fail to please the crowd with a satisfying sound. This production only proves that you don’t need an entire island (plus a treehouse) to believe the situations the characters are in. Before you know it, your imagination takes over!

From the very start, all the mechanics of a real family are felt between DeBoy, Duyne, Pasquariello, Mundy, and Lorz. Whether clinging for life on a raft or just teasing the hell out of each other, these five actors give such a family performance that it might even make you consider getting stranded on an island for family therapy. Complemented by Lorz’s impeccable comedic timing, Mundy’s endearing pessimist attitude, and Pasquariello’s oldest child disposition, this family is a force to be reckoned with.

Jessie Shelton, playing the ingénue, Emily Montrose (previously known as Jenny in Wyss’ novel), displays a fire in her performance with song and dance that easily transitions to sweet and sensitive given the situations she finds herself in. She is pursued by Patrick Oliver Jones who plays the hopeless romantic DuBois with a French accent that never falters and an arrow shot straight to our hearts.

Summing up my experience with Swiss Family Robinson can only be described by another very eager theatergoer, who exclaimed upon exiting the theater, “Worth every penny of admission!” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly how I felt.