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Stunning sets, lighting create a magical world for TOY's 'Stellaluna'

I fell in love with this show before it even started.

Before artistic director Meg Quinn took to the apron of the Allendale Theatre stage to introduce “Stellaluna” to its audience of tiny people.

Before the small, agile ensemble sang their first notes of Guus Ponsioen’s lush, harmonic score.

Before we met Adam Kreutinger’s latest ingenious puppet creations, this time of bats and birds, each one as soulful and captivating as the talented humans manipulating them.

Before everything that would conspire to make the next 40 minutes an extraordinary theatrical experience.

I fell in love as soon as I walked in and saw the world waiting for us on stage. It wasn’t extravagant or shocking, just simple and beautiful.

TOY’s production design, under Kenneth Shaw’s direction, is an expected joy at this point. His sets regularly push the envelope, a child’s sandbox fantasy as rendered by an expert craftsperson. His designs, which often include costumes, eschew formula (at least on the surface) and start from scratch every time, in the kernel of the show’s spark of truth. Lighting designer Emma Schimminger’s painterly, nuanced aesthetic elicits the same kind of admiration. Her work only gets sharper with every additional credit.

Together, Shaw and Schimminger’s work is stunning. It immediately invites exploration of a foreign terrain, a world so far removed from the one we just left. This bodes well for building young audiences, and toning their imaginative muscles. It also helps an ensemble of grounded actors portray a cast of flying characters in a way that enhances their performative craft. In less imaginative hands, this set’s concept might drag actors down, but here everyone soars. Tree limbs lift up from the floor, a reminder of the story’s altitude. A luminescent moon hangs gorgeously above, moodily lit, romantic as ever. These are details that truly make this a work of awe.

All of this is to underscore the importance of great design, yes, but also the necessity in children’s theater—any theater—to inspire interpretation, invite questions, elicit wonder. Though Shaw’s excellent work is a house standard, it should never be taken for granted. He has outdone himself, and with a relatively simple concept. In painting the ceiling with glowing (projected) stars, Schimminger has invited the audience to wish up on them. My own jaw dropped a little when they first glowed.

But the show’s pleasures go well beyond its aesthetics.

The story, about a young bat who befriends a family of baby birds, teaches easy lessons about individuality and family. It doesn't go too deep, considering the suggested age range. But it lands softly and comfortably.

Director Kyle Loconti—making her TOY directorial debut—has assembled a most fitting ensemble to fill these skies. The cast handily delivers a kiddo-friendly balance of resonant emotions, from contemporary humor to earned pathos.

Arin Lee Dandes, Leah Berst, Kelly Copps, Sabrina Kahwaty and Alexandria Watts serve many duties in their varied roles. They’re a tight unit of puppeteers, actors and singers, bound together by choreographic teamwork and precise coordination. Not only do they move cohesively, they sound beautiful together. Ponsioen’s harmonies, and a surprise operatic tendency, hits a sweet spot that vibrates with pleasure.

Hand-controlled puppets evoke the spirit of Jim Henson in "Stellaluna" (Photo by Benjamin Richey)

With actors visibly handling Kreutinger’s hand-controlled puppets—which evoke all the brilliance and detail of Jim Henson’s creations—we get to determine from where we register a character’s emotions: on the puppet’s animated felt, or its actor’s human face. The trick is absorb the marriage of the two. This kind of theater exposes the seams, and trusts in the audience’s intuition. It’s a beautiful thing.

Kreutinger, who has made great contributions to many local theatrical productions, and a number of his own shows, proves once again how thoroughly detailed an artist he is, and how lucky we are to have him in our midst.

If there’s one quibble here, it’s in the often-referenced weakness of the Allendale’s cavernous acoustics. The score is largely sung-through, and packs a punch with dense lyrical passages. The story can get lost in the audio mix, but not enough to cause confusion; a muffled lyric here or there, at most. For audiences as young as four years old, the plot more importantly communicates an underlying lesson—that being different is wonderful; that believing in your natural abilities makes you strong; that daring to break the mold and take a leap toward originality makes life worth living. What an extraordinary way to spend an hour. Don’t miss it.

Theater Review

"STELLALUNA"

4 stars (out of 4)/4 stars

Performances at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 2 Theatre of Youth, 203 Allen St. Plus a sensory-friendly performance at 10 a.m. May 20 at 10 a.m. Tickets are $15 to $28 (theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400).

 

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