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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

The Great Family Tree leafs out nicely in SteppingStone and Mu's co-production

Family Tree
Gao Vang, Gao Lee Vang and Naomi Berger
Two schoolboys, who would rather be watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" than tackling a homework assignment to research their family trees, sit down at the computer to placate Josh's mother. They look up "family tree" on the Internet, meet a giant redwood and get drawn (literally) into the fascination of ancestry in Mu artistic director Rick Shiomi's pleasing musical play for children, The Great Family Tree. Gary Rue composed the tuneful score and, under the choreographic direction of Sandy Augustin, SteppingStone Theatre and Theater Mu co-produce a simple, yet stylish, one-hour show that captivated its young audience on opening night.

As the boys engage with the tree, they are pulled from Josh's basement into the magic of the redwood. There, they fall asleep beneath its waving branches. Soon, Josh's adopted sister and their worried mother follow, and the tree orchestrates a journey for each child to learn about his or her cultural past and to fill each one with renewed respect for family.

Tree opens with backpack-slung children heading home from school. Josh (Samuel Patrick Faunillan) disses his sister, Sarah, and confides to his friend, Lou Tou (Chris Berger), that she is not a real sister, but adopted. Sarah (Mee Chang) tells her friend that little brothers are a nuisance. This inter-family dissonance and the cultural differences that divide us are what the magical tree seeks to heal in an adventure for Josh that takes him into his ancestral past in Korea, to Laos for Lou Tou and to China for Sarah.

As Josh and Lou Tou's interest in ancestry ignites, director Augustin neatly accomplishes the boys' metaphorical step into the imagination; she has them stagger, as though pulled against their will by an unseen magnetic force from the computer room, far stage left, onto the dimly-lit main stage and into the aura of the tree. The tree is another small delight: a group of children sway and bend, like the branches of a great tree shifting in a summer breeze. The tree-children wear leafy-looking tunics and matching crowns, adorned with twigs in Alicia C. Vegell's stylish costume design, and they sing, "Everyone needs a family tree."

As Josh, Lou Tou and Sarah are each invited to "climb through their family tree," the magical tree breaks and re-forms in Augustin's strong choreographic design, and the children handle their movements with grace.

Some 16 children make up this ensemble, and all manage their multiple roles with composure. As Sarah, Chang has a good stage presence and a lovely singing voice. Faunillan is a bold Josh, and Berger plays Lou Tou as a thoughtful boy. Young Francesca Dawis sings a solo well and enjoys her romp as one of four engaging monkeys. The always strong Sarah Ochs is the only adult in the cast, and she plays Josh and Sarah's mother, an ill Korean mother and an elderly aunt.

Set designer Joe Stanley uses a minimal set on the extreme left of the stage for Josh's home, and light designer James Soden floods this "real" space with bright light when it's in play, which distinguishes it from the more softly lit, magical space of the tree. The kids bring onto the empty main stage the few props that define each story, a simplicity that serves this imaginative play well.

Each of the three journeys that the tree arranges for Josh, Lou Tou and Sarah resonates like a folktale, and children love stories. Tree is a thoughtful musical, played by children for children, and it's skillful telling engaged all the young children sitting around me on opening night.

The Great Family Tree May 6 May 26, 2005. Fridays 7:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 2:00 p.m. Morning shows Tuesdays through Thursdays. Call for times. Tickets $15 - $25. Mu Performing Arts and Steppingstone Theatre at The Wayerhaeuser Auditorium, Landmark Center, 75, West Fifth Street, Downtown St. Paul. Call 612-225-9265.


Photo: Ann Marsden


- Elizabeth Weir



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