There shouldn't be a need for musicals to remind us of the power of imagination. But in a theatrical climate best typified by shows like Wicked, it's wise to have that pointed out as often as possible. That show, and others of its overblown, pop-polluted ilk, argues that visual spectacle and high belting are equivalent to thoughtful, emotional content.
Luckily, not everyone agrees - just ask the team behind Captain Louie. Meridee Stein directed the new production of the show at the York, which features a book by Anthony Stein (adapted from Ezra Jack Keats's 1978 children's book The Trip) and a score by Stephen Schwartz. Yes, it's from the same man responsible for Wicked. But the songs in Captain Louie suggest that not only was that score's overbearing bombast an aberration in Schwartz's otherwise noteworthy career, but that the composer hasn't actually forgotten how human beings speak, think, and act.
The best of the numbers he's written for Captain Louie - most of which date back to the show's first incarnation in the early 1980s - tap into the uncertain feelings, fears, and confusions that have always formed the basis for children's books. The opener is a wistful one, "New Kid in the Neighborhood," for Louie (Jimmy Dieffenbach), who's just moved away from the only friends and home he's ever known. When he uses a diorama to escape into fantasy and visit his friends again, the musical scene Schwartz has concocted, "Big Red Plane" (based on Louie's cherished toy), is nothing short of magical. So are the songs that conclude Louie's adventure - the joyous title song, in which he convinces his old friends to take to the skies with him, and the sad but expectant "Home Again," when it's time for them all to say goodbye again.
Most of the songs in between are less astutely judged. This includes the willfully energetic Halloween tribute "Trick or Treat," which - due to its forceful audience-interaction staging (the choreography is by Joshua Bergasse) and its undue repetition - seems destined to live beyond the show. Other songs, which feature dancing shadows (to simulate fear) or lengthy lists of ways to torment the new occupants of Louie's old house, are little more than time-wasters intended to give Captain Louie an edge it doesn't need and can't use; Anthony Stein's book is a model of simplicity and innocence, cute but not cloying, fun but not frantic.
The physical production is in much the same whimsical mode, with inventively adaptable set pieces (from Jeff Subik, based on Keats's drawings) that change into streets, alleys, or even Louie's airplane for a visually impressive climax, and delightful Halloween-themed costumes (Elizabeth Flauto, also working from Keats) cleverly comprising a broom, a mouse, a flower, and even a mushroom. Annmarie Duggan's lighting and multimedia from The Joshua Light Show also contribute to an environment where seemingly anything can happen.
Dieffenbach is an engaging and strongly sung Louie; he strikes a good balance between loneliness and hopeful optimism, and becomes so involved in the creation of Louie's fantasy that you can't help get wrapped up in it, too. He has the beginnings of real stage presence, which is good for the show; everyone else plays a supporting role. Most notable of the others is Sara Kapner, who appeared with Dieffenbach in last year's Children's Letters to God, and is full of spunky show-biz wiles that will serve her well should she pursue acting as a career. The rest of the cast is solid, game if unremarkable, though the older cast members bear traces of affectation that don't compare well to the younger kids' more natural charms.
And charm is, more than anything else, what Captain Louie has going for it. Will the show appeal much to adults without kids in tow? Probably not - it's an enjoyable, breezy hour, but lacks the dash of sophistication that sets more universal family shows (like A Year With Frog and Toad) apart. A few surprisingly mature line readings aside (Dieffenbach had me in stitches with an older-than-his-years interpretation of a question about a telephone number), this is really for kids.
Still, it's more entertaining than Wicked; cheaper and shorter, too, and more in keeping with the kind of show that the theatre community needs most today: one that will inspire children to a life of theatregoing. The show's other flaws aside, that makes Captain Louie a flight of fancy well worth taking your family on.
York Theatre Company