A wolf in coyote's clothing
Peter and the Wolf
on the Musical Tale by Sergei Prokofiev
Adapted by Allison Gregory (lyrics and book) and Hummie Mann (lyrics)
Directed by Bruce Merrill
Manhattan Children’s' Theatre ()
52 White Street
Non union (through November 9, 2008)
Review by Rebecca Nesvet
Manhattan Children Theatre's new adaptation of Prokofiev's "musical tale" Peter and The Wolf is accessible to its age-four-and-up demographic, witty, and just scary enough, at certain points, to seem suspenseful and honest. Its one hour length will keep the most distraction-prone kids paying attention, and it's smartly acted enough to interest the adults the target demographic must bring with them. Writers Allison Gregory (co-lyricist and bookwriter) and Hummie Mann (co-lyricist) have relocated the action to a rural American setting, where cowboy and baseball hats replace Russian fur headgear.
This Peter and the Wolf is also Americanized in terms of stylistic influence: the struggle between Peter's animal friends and the fearsome wolf is staged like a live Tex Avery cartoon, with the hyperactive, slavering wolf as a smarter cousin of Wile E. Coyote, but with the same popping eyes and rapid-to-slow-mo gait. This might even be admitted in Gregory's script: at one point, Peter calls the wolf "that wily fellow." The concept will make perfect sense to those adults in the audience who recall Avery's choreographing of his characters' actions to instrumental classical accompaniments, and being entranced by the danger whilst knowing that, in the end, the prey will safely outsmart the predator.
Capable actors create their animal personae through body language, which they do very effectively. It's easy to imagine graceful, slinky Katie Hayes as Prokofiev's Cat; fluttering, squeaky Sarah Jane Mellen -- a finalist in MTV's recent search for a new Legally Blonde star -- as the Bird, and clumsy, waddling Caitlin Thurnauer as the Duck. In keeping with this biomechanical illustration, the costumes are understated. These actors' faces are neither obscured by masks nor painted as animals; a few well-chosen beastly accessories -- feathers, scuba flippers, a fur collar -- adorn their otherwise human clothes. Furry, pointy brown ears sprouting from actor Daniel Moser's similarly-hued hair and a tail protruding from his fur-collared greatcoat are the only indications that his character is lupine. He looks -- and moves, and snarls -- like a werewolf. As this villain, Moser steals the show -- a difficult task, given Jay Paranada's childlike but never precious performance as a rambunctious boy probably less than half his age.
Puppet versions of the characters look more like actual animals, and are color-coordinated with the costumes of the human performers. The deception becomes chillingly real when the Wolf, having just killed and eaten the Duck, coughs up a feather. (Parents of scare-prone children should be warned that in this version, the Duck's murder is shown as shadow theatre, and her death is permanent.)
Most of Prokofiev's original score is preserved here, though spruced up with intermittent new songs, dialogue spoken over the instrumental music, swift, funny pantomime, and puppetry. Gregory and Mann's lyrics and expanded plot are wonderful. A great example is the song "The Perfect Trap," in which Peter explains the Rube Goldberg-style machine he has designed to catch the wolf. Proudly displaying a dismayingly complex blueprint, Peter sings:
You drop the marble, let it roll
Right down the chute into the hole
Then this fork flips and hits the spoon,
…Which then releases this balloon…
The humor in this situation soon gives way to real danger, as Peter learns that there are some threats in the world with which even the bravest kids cannot deal by themselves. Peter's grandfather worries about what may happen -- in terms fine for family audiences -- to kids with delusions of invincibility. Without playing up "stranger danger" to a paranoid degree, Gregory and Mann make their point and move on to more antics.
Near the end, the plot dovetails into a moral dilemma that may be unsolvable even by the adults in the audience: what to do with a "wolf" once you've caught him. Kill him, as the Hunter advises, or put him on a diet of "Lean Cuisine" and hope that he can be "changed?" While never straying into territory that will ruffle the feathers of kids -- or parents -- this question concedes that there are some areas of the forest of the world that are as murky to grown-ups as they are to children like Peter.
Copyright 2008 by Rebecca Nesvet
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