nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 30, 2005
There is no pulling the wool over the eyes of children, at least not in show business. A quiet theatre is an entertained audience. Such was the case for Captain Louie, the Stephen Schwartz/Anthony Stein musical revival based on Ezra Jack Keats’s children’s book, The Trip. There are a number of things to recommend this production—a young, energetic cast and excellent costumes among them.
Keats’s original story is very short and extremely focused. The story is about a young boy named Louie who moves to a new neighborhood and misses his friends. He builds a panorama of his old environs in a shoe box, hangs his toy airplane inside, and transports himself back in time to go trick or treating with them. Anthony Stein, who wrote the musical’s book, expands the story by developing the personalities of Louie’s friends and incorporating subplots that support Louie’s loneliness. One involves Julio, not quite part of the old gang. As it turns out, he is the new boy on the block, the one who moved into Louie’s old house, and he is having similar qualms about his new neighborhood. Another subplot focuses on Ziggy, who lives at the far end of a scary alley. The plot additions add liveliness and diversion, but they also distract from Louie’s loneliness, causing the production to lose focus. This may be the reason Meridee Stein, who directed this otherwise engaging musical, has a narrator read the simple primer to the audience before the action begins. While she reads, the book’s illustrations, soft and beautiful on the page, are projected on the back wall. They emit an overall warm feeling—washing the stage in pastels—and they prepare the audience for the costumes to come.
Jeff Subik’s sets and Elizabeth Flauto’s costumes are based on Keats’s illustrations. The sets fit nicely into the action of the play, and are scaled for the children who are performing. The costumes are lively and true to the book; particularly appealing are the large, pointy-nosed mouse and the huge golden sunflower on little Archie. One of the clever innovations is the shadows. Flauto dresses her shadows in black stretch sacks, and they deliver an appropriate interpretation of what could be scary but isn’t in Joshua Bergasse’s charming dance number “Shadows” Any child would be proud to haunt the neighborhood on Halloween in such costumes.
Stephen Schwartz’s music is spirited. It offers the cast an outlet for their energy. The best of the lyrics comes in “Looza on the Block.” It addresses the fears of both Louie and Julio and their loneliness as newcomers, and brings the audience back to the central issue of the play. A couple of the numbers roused the adults in the audience into rhythmic clapping, which says as much about the music as it does about the energetic cast.
Douglas Fabian as Louie shows diversity—first his quiet side when we first meet him playing alone outside his new house, then exuberance when he discovers that he has replicated his old neighborhood, trepidation when he finds houses that should be familiar-looking strangely different, and finally acceptance that he lives in a new neighborhood and is able to make new friends. Fabian commands a large stage and keeps a high-spirited cast grounded in his story, that is, as much as the story allows him. Stein has written strong personalities for Louie’s friends. Most notable are Katelyn Pippy as Roberta/Mouse, who exudes enough bossiness to challenge Charlie Brown’s nemesis, Lucy, and with a threatening New York accent to boot; and Ricky Smith as an endearing Archie/Sunflower, who is afraid of everything. Sara Kapner as Amy/Broom demonstrates an appealing shy side of a gang filled with Type A personalities. Ronny Mercedes, in the role of Julio, physically bounds around the stage at one moment and later stands in quiet discomfort when the others discover where he lives. Paul Pontrelli as Ziggy brings out the one distinguishing moment of heartfelt embarrassment and hurt when he explains to his friends why they have never seen his house. In an otherwise quiet theatre, the silence changed substantially, and one of the younger children in the audience noted it with a loud, “What happened!” Are moments like this too overwhelming for children or is this the kind of connection to strive for?
Captain Louie is a thoroughly enjoyable children’s musical, with enough energy to capture the young audience’s attention. The question remains whether the show could have gone from entertaining to engrossing by maintaining its focus. At the start of the production, the lights went down and one child yelled, “I can’t see.” The lights went up for the show and he was not heard from for the entire hour. Ah, kids. So willing and so eager.