Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2006

It is a sad comment on how we prioritize our arts dollars that I am used to seeing even the very best children’s theatre presented with fairly low-budget production values. So NYSTI’s top-flight production of The Cat, the Sun, and the Mirror, a new musical aimed at an elementary school age audience, looked quite amazing to me. The sets, lights, and costumes are seamlessly integrated into a overall look that is both film noir gritty and comic strip bright. And NYSTI’s core company, assisted by talented interns and occasional players, give their usual strong performances under Ed. Lange’s lively direction.

Author Robert A. Anderson has used an ancient Japanese myth as the basis for his modern-day fable. According to Shinto belief, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami shut herself up in a comfortable cave and deprived the world of light after being repeatedly harassed by her half-brother the storm god. Eight million gods and goddesses failed to lure her out until Uzume, the goddess of merriment, placed a mirror outside of the cave. The sun goddess was so dazzled by her own brilliance, which she had never seen before, that she emerged and returned to light the earth.

Anderson’s version shows the concerns of the citizens of one modern city when the sun fails to rise one morning. In searching for a modern mythic hero, Anderson settled on the film noir private eye, who he views as “the typical loner caught up in a search for truth.” And Anderson made his private eye a cat, because that animal embodies the curiosity, stealth, and independence Anderson wanted for his hero.

The citizens of the city (Ron Komora, Alexandra Colón Taffany, Duncan Morrison, Mary Jane Hansen, and Shannon Rafferty) send the Cat (David Girard) out to search for the Sun (Sarah Farnam). He interrogates bad guy Mr. Big (John Romeo), his bodyguard (David Bunce), his henchmen, Lefty (Joel Aroeste) and Nails (Paul Carter), and his slinky Moll (Emma Dubin). Then he investigates the wealthy Grand Visier (John McGuire) and his Grand Visieress (Michaela Reilly). Despite a cat’s natural dislike of the water, our hero dives down into the Ocean (Aroeste) and converses with the fish. Reemerging on to dry land he gets some good advice from the Old Dog (Aroeste), which helps him look for answers in a new and surprising place. After seeing his own mirror image in a dream, the Cat understands what he must do to help the Sun regain her self-confidence and return to her place in the sky. With the exception of Girard and Farnam, the cast of fourteen rotates rapidly through roles and fantastic costumes during the brief 50 minutes it takes for this tale to be told. There are no weak links in this group, many of whom are NYSTI regulars.

Girard does a fine job being as cat-like as is humanly possible. He is an actor capable of delivering a strong physical as well as vocal performance, but previously I have seen that energy expended in more brooding or menacing roles. I knew he could be a cat, but would he be too intense a cat for the children to handle? The answer is no. Girard is just the right sort of fedora-wearing private eye cat – cool and tough but a real pussycat underneath it all. He does wear some facial make-up and sport a tail to make him look cat-like, but his costume is more Humphrey Bogart than Felix.

Humans and cats do not have much in common physically, our bodies just don’t bend and move the way their’s do, but Girard gets in some nice feline moments, like a good behind-the-ear scratch and a nice settling-down-for-a-nap ripple, as well as many fearless leaps and pounces. At the performance I saw he even managed to land on his feet after stumbling backwards down some stairs, a neat, and lucky, unchoreographed maneuver.

Aroeste gets all the good parts, and he looks like he’s having a ball playing them. He is, in turn, a dastardly henchman clad head-to-toe in a lime sherbet colored double-breasted suit, the Ocean swathed in acres (fathoms?) of flowing aqua fabric, and a Rasta-style Old Homeless Dog, clad in amazing jumble of colorful cast-offs.

McGuire and Reilly are suavely sensational in their fast paced number as the Grand Visier and his Grand Visieress.

Farnam uses her soaring soprano voice to elevate the sun to appropriate heights, aided handsomely by a glorious costume and warm golden lighting.

The two NYSTI interns in this production, Emma Dubin and Alexandra Colón Taffany, both high school seniors, are indistinguishable from their adult professional colleagues. Dubin does a nifty dance number as Mr. Big’s Moll, and Taffany takes the lead on several of the narrative recitatives as well as getting to play a shark in the ocean scene.

The real stars of this show are Jason Adrizzone-West’s trompe l’oeil set, Robert Anton’s dazzling costumes, and Betsy Adams’ atmospheric lighting. This show just looks fabulous! Adrizzone-West has provided a city block in forced perspective that appears to recede rapidly from stage left to stage right. Shadowy underground lairs appear illuminated inside the storm drains under the sidewalk. Each building is actually a periaktoi, a rotating three or four sided structure, which allows them to be rotated to present new scenes. Stage right there is a receding row of trees, under the roots of which the Sun has taken shelter.

Adams provides stark the blue-white light of a world lit only by bulbs, a “blue fluorescent haze” as Anderson’s libretto states. But she lights the sun with a warm golden glow, and brings the cityscape back to renewed color and life in the end.

But Anton’s vivid costumes never lose their color. From the moment the actors take the stage the garish comic book colored clothing lets young audience members know that this world is not real, but, despite its overarching gloom, it is fun and funny and safe. I could take many paragraphs to try to explain Anton’s wonderful inventiveness costuming people and animals and fish, but it would be far better if you went to see for yourself.

Edward C. Sullivan has provided the music and lyrics, which are tuneful but not brilliant. Music Director and keyboardist Michael Musial conducts a small ensemble consisting of Tom Gerbino and David Lambert on reeds, Tony Riccobono and Tom Charlap on bass, and Mark Foster on percussion. They make a BIG sound, and so it is necessary to have the actors body miked, which makes the noise level even louder…Sometimes I miss acoustic theatre.

As an adult, I found the plot of this show a little thin, but then I am not the audience for which it is intended. In order to test its suitability, I brought my ten-year-old nephew along, and kept a close eye and ear on him and the other children in the audience. They all paid rapt attention, except during the introspective number when the younger ones fidgeted a bit. But nothing lasts too long in this zippy show, and they were soon reengaged with the show.

So often we drag children along to see shows we like, or that we think they should like, or that will be good cultural experiences. Here’s a piece written and performed just for them. Be a sport and come along for the ride.

The New York State Theatre Institute production of The Cat, the Sun, and the Mirror runs through June 16 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs about 50 minutes and is perfectly suited for children ages 5-10. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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