Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
An American TailChildren's Theatre Company
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Defeat of Jesse James, First Lady Suite, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, The Pajama Game, We Shall Someday, and Returning to Haifa
If you are not familiar with the original, the virtuous immigrants in An American Tail are mice, and their violent oppressors are cats. Putting the characters at this remove from human beings no doubt makes it easier for younger children to view without having nightmares. Interestingly, this device does not diminish the effect the story has on adults, which certainly could resemble the tail, uh, tale of the parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents of many sitting in the audience. In fact, in 1986, the year An American Tail came out, so did the first volume of Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic work based on his father's vivid remembrances of life as a Jew in Europe during the Nazi regime. In that work, Spiegelman depicts Jews as mice and Nazi officials and soldiers as cats and pigs, and the work certainly has profound impact on adult readers.
Which is not to suggest that An American Tail is nearly so dark a work. While it broaches difficult material, it also lifts the spirits, and leaves us with positive outcomes that sing of the virtues of tenaciousness, family and communities working for the common good. You can save the show's serious side for meaningful conversations about these issues on the drive home–as I had with my two young guests on opening night. That's a terrific take-away, but the even greater payoff is that An American Tail is wonderfully entertaining for all ages.
At the heart of the story is a family of eastern European Jews, the Mousekewitzes: Papa, Mama, daughter Tanya, and son Fievel. From the start the focus narrows on to Fievel, the hero of the piece. After yet another pogrom, the family decides it is time to leave the old land behind and make a new home in America–where, they are told, there are no cats and the streets are paved with cheese. While crossing the Atlantic a terrible storm wracks their ship–with awesome light, sound, and the actors' movement used to create this event on stage–and Fievel is tossed overboard. With no sign of him, his parents give up hope that he could have survived and the remaining Mousekewitzes arrive, heartbroken, in their new land. Of course, Fievel does survive, floating in a bottle, another nifty bit of staging. He lands on an island in the harbor, where a French pigeon named Henri is at work on a statue, the completed bottom half of which looks suspiciously like that famous statue by a French sculptor that graces New York harbor, with her lamp of liberty held high.
Henri delivers Fievel to the mainland where, amidst the bustling, impersonal city, the young mouse begins a desperate search for his family. He is soon tricked into working in a sweatshop run by the sinister Warren T. Rat, alongside other young immigrants from round the world. There he is taken under wing by a teenage Italian mouse named Tony, and soon meets up with an African American reformist named Bridget, a society doyenne named Gussie, and a precinct politico named Honest John. Plots for the mice to flee the sweatshop and rise up against the oppressive yoke of the cats intermingle with Fievel's search for his family, while his sister Tanya, who refuses to believe he is dead, searches for him. Tony changes Fievel's name to Filly, easier to remember than the foreign-sounding "Fievel." Tony also falls bigtime for Bridget, though she is far too committed to her cause to have time for romance.
While the show will appeal to children, its book has intelligence and humor, its score a spriteliness, and its staging a sophistication that makes it no less appealing to adults in the audience. The book was adapted from the movie by Tony Award winning (for The Band's Visit) playwright and lyricist Itamar Moses. The plotting, despite numerous twists and turns, is presented in a straight-forward manner and easy to follow. The dialogue feels authentic to each character, conveying genuine emotions, and its humor stems from characters and situations.
The jaunty score is by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, whose numerous credits include Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Musical, which premiered at Children's Theatre Company where it played a return run last spring. The pair have created eight new songs for the show. Highlights include: a klezmer-toned opening as the Mousekewitz and other families celebrate "Hanukkah"; "Scraps," in which Fievel and Tony hatch a scheme to escape the sweatshop; the charming "Only You," in which Tony tries mightily, but in vain, to win Bridget over; and "Set You Free," an all-out musical production number for a bookkeeper who happens to be a cockroach–believe me, it totally works.
The show wisely retains three songs written by Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, and James Horner for the movie: "There Are No Mice in America," "Never Say Never," and "Somewhere Out There," the film's Oscar-nominated flagship song, a rendition of which by James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt that played over the closing credits was released as a single, became a solid hit record, and won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year. In the stage musical, it is a tug-at the heartstrings number that is smartly placed, tenderly staged, and definitely has the desired effect on audience members young and old.
I marvel at the amazingly talented youngsters who perform at Children's Theatre Company, but never so much as I marveled at Matthew Woody as Fievel. The young actor has a wonderful voice cut out for showtunes, a knack for expressing genuine emotions, great timing, and enormous stage presence. His performance had the audience cheering. Another young actor, Lillian Hochman, is very affecting as Fievel's sister Tanya. The Mousekewitz parents are played by Luverne Siefert (Papa) and Becca Hart (Mama), each giving their parts a deep measure of feeling along with pithy humor, and each doubles-up to play another role–Seifert as Warren T Rat, and Hart as Digit (that bookkeeping cockroach), and in these roles they both have opportunities to let loose and happily steal the spotlight.
Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund, two Children's Theatre stalwarts, bring wonderful brio to their performances as Gussie and Honest John, respectively, and Kiko Laureano conveys a just-right mixture of sincerity and sass as Bridget. Ryan London Levin is an actor I have watched develop for the last decade or so, in roles large (The Last Five Years at Artistry) and small (Merrily We Roll Along at Theatre Latte Da). Here, he is absolutely wonderful as Tony, in good voice, physically nimble, revealing Tony's nurturing side in offering aid to Fievel as well as a callow side in his pursuit of Bridget, and brings the character through a measure of growth and maturation that rings totally true.
Director Taibi Magar, recently named Co-Artistic Director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, has directed several times locally at the Guthrie, and draws together the many parts of An American Tail with aplomb, keeping a tone that is playful without ever minimizing the serious, heartfelt story beneath the light strokes. Katie Spelman has devised winning choreography for numerous dance numbers. The set design by Jason Sherwood, with the entire show conceived as taking place within an old-style lined suitcase, Trevor Bowen's delightful and colorful costumes complete with furry mouse ears that are adorable without seeming cloying, Katherine Horowitz's evocative sound design, and Jeannette Oi-Suk-Yew's lighting design, which goes a long way toward marking scenes on a spectrum between frightening and joyful, all do first-rate work. Christopher Lutter-Gardella is responsible for designing puppets used to depict the dreaded cats, and are wonderfully inventive, delivering a quantum of the fright felt by the mice, along with the humor that is embedded in the entire conceit.
An American Tail is a sweetheart of a show, and you don't have to have a child in tow to thoroughly enjoy it. Without the dazzling effects of many of the big musicals that tour the nation, this show uses imagination, fantastic stagecraft, solid performances, heart, humor and a story that speaks to who we are as a nation to win us over. I cannot conceive of a more winning combination
An American Tail runs through June 18, 2023, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $25 - $89. $10 discounts for children (17 and under), seniors (62 and above), and military personnel. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org.
Book and Lyrics: Itamar Moses; Music and Lyrics: Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment animated film; Director: Taibi Magar; Choreographer: Katie Spelman; Music Sup: Denise Prosek and Victor Zupanc; Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Puppet Design: Christopher Lutter-Gardella; Hair, Make-up and Wig Design: J. Jared Janas; Orchestrator: Alan Schmuckler; Music Supervisor: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Supervisor and Conductor: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Talvin Wilks; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Student Acting Coach: Amanda Espinoza; Assistant Director: Ema Y. Lai; Associate Choreographer: Emily Madigan; Stage Manager: Jenny Friend.
Cast: Anja Arora (orphan/ensemble), Morgen Chang (Qiujin's mother/violinist/ensemble), Deidre Cochran (Henri/ensemble), Becca Hart (Mama/Digit), Lillian Hochman (Tanya/ensemble), Dean Holt (German landlord/ cop/ensemble), El Kost (orphan/ensemble) Kiko Laureano (Bridget/ensemble), Ryan London Levin (Tony/ensemble), Ines Mojica (orphan/ensemble), Autumn Ness (Gussie/ensemble), Mari Peterson-Hilleque (orphan/ensemble), Luverne Seifert (Papa/Warren T. Rat), Reed Sigmund (Honest John/ensemble), Alexcia Thompson (Cherisse/ensemble), Tic Treitler (Sigfrid/ensemble), Mabel Weismann (Stu/ensemble), Glen E. Williams II (Moe/ensemble), Matthew Woody (Fievel), Monica Xiong (Qiujin/ensemble).