Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Creativity, comedy, passion mark Kneehigh musical

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

thumbs-up3Like so many other things, exceptional musicals can come in threes.

Consider England’s Kneehigh theater troupe.

The first of its productions that I caught at the Berkeley Rep was “The Wild Bride,” five years ago.

My review cited its romance, magic and whimsy.

Next came “Tristan & Yseult.” I deemed it enchanting, charming and unadulterated fun.

Now comes something even better — a two-hour U.S. premiere of “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” a multi-leveled concoction as easy to devour as a 16-layer chocolate cake.

It’s stuffed with creativity and comedy.

Plus passion, music, dance, ingenious staging and a striking set with blue sky/white cloud bandstand, piled up sandbags and metal washbasins that double as receptacles for miniaturized landing forces.

“946” made me react simultaneously — positively — to multiple theatrical stimulants.

Kneehigh is known for finding multi-faceted performers. And this go-‘round was a particular joy to watch ensemble players sing, dance, manipulate marionettes, play instruments and change into multiple characters.

With, in the British tradition, a little gender-bending.

And with so many surprises it felt as if the cast of a dozen actually had triple that number in it (they jointly earned its standing ovation opening night).

Lily (Katy Owen), a pre-teen, kisses her cat Tips (a marionette) in “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.” Photo by Steve Tanner.

Lily (Katy Owen), a pre-teen, kisses her cat Tips (a marionette) in “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.” Photo by Steve Tanner.

Lily (Katy Owen), a pre-teen, kisses her cat Tips (a marionette) in “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.” Photo by Steve Tanner.

Katy Owen, who plays the lead (an endearing, pigtailed 12-year-old Lily Tregenza) is what sports fans would call “a pheenom.”

Her eyes alternately flash innocence and anguish. Her lithe body playfully portrays teenage awkwardness and coming of age so everything seems natural despite purposeful exaggerations.

Emma Rice, 20-year Kneehigh vet who’d also directed “Bride” and “Tristan,” makes sure the infinitely diverse components come together.

She adapted the story along with Michael Morpurgo, who wrote “946” as a children’s book (and who’s authored 120 more, including the runaway success, “War Horse”).

The musical’s about a long-secret, disastrous “Operation Tiger” rehearsal for the D-Day assault on a Normandy beach — and about the occupation by U.S. troops in the seaside village of Slapton Sands.

Some 946 lives were lost in the exercise.

The play centers on Lily, who’s forever in search of Tips, her peripatetic cat.

But I couldn’t help going back three years, when I visited the French site where 156,000 American and ally troops landed in a mission that changed the course of the war.

Those memories — perhaps because the text touches on individual and group death, communication blunders, anti-Semitism, and pronouncements like “I don’t know where home is anymore” — made me sad.

But only momentarily, because the show’s scarcely a downer.

Ncuti Gatwa (Adolphus, or Adi, left) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry) are high-steppers in “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.” Photo by Steve Tanner.

Ncuti Gatwa (Adolphus, or Adi, left) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry) are high-steppers in “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.” Photo by Steve Tanner.

Rather than differences, it plays up commonalities even when skin color or nationality varies, even when liberators and “country bumpkins” come face to face.

It creates invisible modes of transportation I could clearly see because of the actors’ skill (grandma’s motorbike, and a horse ridden by a haughty British officer).

I also had to grin at Sarah Wright’s marionettes — dogs and cats (and mice who baa like sheep), chickens and birds, and Jeeps.

From teeny to life-sized.

Each more captivating than the next.

The pre-show was amusing, too, as actors in coveralls wielded brooms and swept rows of seats while theatergoers were in them.

It was also immensely pleasurable to hear the band offer mellow arrangements of tunes like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and a buoyant rendition of “Born to Be Wild.”

And composer Stu Barker again showed his acumen as a musical alchemist, juxtaposing such elements as American swing/jitterbug, blues and gospel, Morris folk dancing, a beer bottle-blowing chorus, funereal melodies and festive Jewish klezmer.

Etta Murfitt, who collaborated with Rice on choreography, showcased her mastery of a variety of dance motifs — quirky and fanciful.

Rice, during a post-curtain speech, contended that the Berkeley Rep set was “better than we had in England, but” — in a distinct criticism of Brexit — “we’ve had no money since we left Europe.”

Either way, the show’s as good as it could get.

Commented my wife, “I’d go again — there was so much to see and to hear.”

And though we’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of shows, she’s rarely said that before.

I share her zeal.

“946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” plays at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Jan. 15. Night performances, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $14.50 to $97, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or http://berkeleyrep.org

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or www.vitalitypress.com.

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