It's no coincidence that the large-scale Off-Broadway transfer of Captain Louie is opening on Halloween. After all, that's the setting for this fitful flight of theatrical fancy, based on Ezra Jack Keats's children's book The Trip. The year's one holiday that finds kids as eager to stretch their imaginations as rot their teeth seems the ideal background for a show all about the magic children can conjure to conquer their insecurities.
Parents can relax, too - in the nearly six months since the show first played at the York Theatre Company, Captain Louie hasn't appreciably thickened its sugar coating. Yes, this mounting is bigger, flashier, and more "big time musical" than the original. But the show's underlying spirit and sweet-natured sentimentality remain, though they must fight harder than they should to light up the Little Shubert, where the show is now uncomfortably ensconced.
It's an unforgiving theater, to be sure, as close to a barn as any venue limited to a maximum of 499 seats can be. Its institutional, mass-produced feeling is sharply at odds with the playful, whimsical show Anthony Stein (book) and Stephen Schwartz (score) have written. It's no accident that Schwartz's Wicked thrives in the Gershwin, where it has (and uses) every excuse to keep its audience at a distance. But a show this small must engage its viewers in a way the Little Shubert never makes easy.
The story, after all, is small and straightforward: Louie (Douglas Fabian), who recently moved away from New York, longs to see his old friends, and visits them with the help his toy plane and a diorama of his old neighborhood constructed from a shoe box and paper cut-outs. They laugh, they joke, they have a few Halloween-inspired adventures, and then it's time for Louie to return to the reality of life away from them and begin making new friends in his new home.
As the show derives its songs and scenes from trick-or-treating, overcoming fears of the city's strange sounds, or festively decorating a less-fortunate friend's house, there aren't many moments large enough to fill the theater in any real way. Director Meridee Stein and choreographer Joshua Bergasse have expanded their work, and some numbers - including intended breakout hit "Trick or Treat" and the dance spot "Shadows," in which anthropomorphic shadows terrify Louie as he searches for his friends - do play better here than on the tiny York stage.
But the show's charm now isn't what it was then. Part of this is due to Fabian, talented and amiable as the out-of-place Louie but incapable of defining his character as creatively as the actor he replaced. The greater problem, though, is that the most miniscule moments of cleverness - an actor running through the audience with a toy plane to present Louie's flight, Louie and his friends taking to the skies on a makeshift "real" plane - don't involve you the same way they do when they're happening mere inches from you.
The design team, though, has done their best to approximate the original experience, and have beautifully upgraded their efforts: The multimedia (The Joshua Light Show), mostly a series of cute, sugar-rushing projections, have had their effervescent quality magnified in the larger space; Elizabeth Flauto's costumes, Jeff Subik's sets, and Frank Dain's graphics (all based on Keats's original designs) have been enlarged, clarified, and spiffed up to the highest professional standards. New lighting designer Scott Davis also doesn't disappoint.
But ultimately, it's the little moments, recalling the show's humbler roots, that you remember most. The delightful Sara Kapner's professional verve as she struts through her prodigious paces in her wacky broom costume. The clumsy mushroom stalking the stage near the show's end. The wistful "Home Again," in which Louie sings a final, heartfelt goodbye to his old friends.
Most important, though, are the wonder and delight that pour from the energetic cast and inescapably envelop you. That preserves Captain Louie as a worthwhile family theatre venture, introducing kids - and perhaps reminding adults - of how true theatrical magic is something that no too-large house can ever completely eviscerate.