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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Mu reels in a winner with
The Walleye Kid: The Musical

Mu Performing Arts' delightful venture into music, The Walleye Kid: The Musical, tells a compelling story about an adoptive child's quest to learn her identity, and tells it with empathy and a wit that is as zesty as new-shelled tamarinds. This company-produced work boasts appealing music and lyrics by Kurt Miyashiro, a culture-straddling book by artistic director Rick Shiomi and Sundraya Kase, an ensemble of strong acting and singing, lots of wink-wink fun and, best of all, a 12-year-old star.

The exceptional Isabella Dawis plays Annie, adopted Korean daughter of Mary and George, an ordinary childless couple who live in an archetypal Minnesota community, much like Garrison Keilor's Lake Wobegon. But Annie does not come via the normal adoptive route; she is delivered to her new parents by a fish, in the mysterious tradition of Korean myth. Because this is Minnesota, the fish is a walleye.

Dawis has strong stage presence and the enviable skill of not appearing to be acting, even as she makes Annie a believable, intelligent and feisty child with real dilemmas. She's confident, her voice is true, and she's clearly having a good time.

A sense that the entire cast is having a good time radiates off the stage under John Cranney's deft direction, as he seamlessly weaves the magical with the mundane.

Walleye opens with a brief glimpse of masked dancers rippling to Johoo Park's drumming, a signal that Korean culture glimmers beneath the Minnesotan surface throughout this story.

A hilarious bunch of archetypal Minnesotans wander on stage, toss down blue circles for ice-fishing holes and sit on upturned industrial buckets, rods in hand, and make bland conversation while they await a bite. In Mary Anna Culligan's amusing costume design, they sport baggy paunches, upturned ear-flap hats and Sorel boots, and wear joke noses and heavy glasses, except for Mary (Janet Hanson) and George (Jake Endres). Teach (Momoko Tanno) has a wild blond wig and is fancied by the Grocer (Sherwin F. Resurreccion.) Betty (Allison Van Siclen) is a busy-body birdwatcher, married to sad-faced Coach (Wa Yang.) This hokey crew engender endearing laughter.

The theatrical magic starts when Sara Ochs' shimmering Shaman, a walleye invisible to the ice fishers, yanks her hand upwards, and George's rod jerks. He's got a bite. The Shaman wheels and darts around the stage, dragging George, who fights to keep his fish on the line. All join in, hanging on to George conga-style, to help him land the fish.

Amidst all the confusion, the Shaman brings a baby to Mary in a basket. George turns up, regretting that his fish escaped into the wood (no sense of wonder at this extraordinary escape route for a fish!) and Annie is theirs. Little jokes litter this script, details like the fact that Dawis sang Annie in Chanhassan Dinner Theatre's acclaimed Annie last year.

The stereotyped Minnesotans, whom Annie lives among, harbor their own stereotyped thinking about Asians and, when that turns cruel on the baseball field, Annie's ever-watchful Shaman swims her off to Korea to learn about her culture. Cranny's clever transition from Minnesota to Korea involves sharks, a hum-vee (yes!) umbrellas and the harmony of Sandra Augustin's choreography.

Cranny makes sure we know we are in Korea by having the Shaman sit at a bus stop, reading a Korean version of Time Magazine, with George W's face on the cover. A narrator, rich-voiced Tanno, persuades a family theater troupe to enact a legend for Annie that tells of Korea's ancient divisions, the lot of women, love, birth, loss and hope.

In the script's poetic imagery, Annie senses the ancestral river that flows within her and, strengthened, she's ready to return to her family, Mary and George, in funky Minnesota.

Rich Polenek's simple set feels homemade and serves the gentle satire at play in Walleye Kid. Unseen behind the scrim of the set's lower back wall, Anita Ruth ably directs musicians Joan Griffith and Aaron Barnell, playing Miyashiro's attractive score.

At two and a half hours, Walleye Kid is longer than it needs to be, but the time slips past in enchantment. Find a young person and don't let this one get away.

The Walleye Kid: The Musical March 11 - 27, 2005. Thursdays - Sundays 7:30 p.m. Tickets $16 - $18. Mu Performing Arts, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-338-6131, or www.muperformingarts.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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