In an ideal world, the shared goal of performers and theater-creators is to transfix and captivate an audience, and leave them with a different outlook than when they arrived. If the toddler sitting next to me—completely still, eyes fixed on the stage for a full fifty minutes—was any indication, Addy & Uno, currently running at the Kirk Theatre, does just that. Brought to life with puppetry and music, Addy & Uno manages to say a great deal in under an hour about friendship, kindness, and the varied meanings of “different” and “special”. The puppetry is similar in technique to the method used in Avenue Q, but the puppets here represent children with vision and hearing impairment, wheelchair use, autism and ADHD. The show depicts these challenges not as limitations but as an impetus for exploration of what makes each character unique and exceptional.
The plot: Addy (Caitlin Donohue), who has ADHD, signs up her friend Uno (Noah Pyzik) for a math competition in order to win a new red bicycle. Uno loves math and is extremely good at it, but his autism makes him shy around big groups and the public speaking the competition requires makes him nervous. His friends help him find the courage to join the math team and take part in the competition. Uno and Addy’s friends all have things that make them different and they all have to deal with the school’s bullies, but in focusing on what each of them is good at, they build each other up through kindness, empathy and respect.
The show was originally conceived by Nava R. Silton, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College. It was workshopped at Marymount before moving to the Fourteenth Street YMCA, where the current producer, Tom D’Angora, saw its threefold potential: to create positive change, to allow children with disabilities to see themselves depicted onstage, and to demonstrate that “kindness makes a difference.” Addy & Uno is now enjoying an ongoing run at on Theatre Row. According to D’Angora, one of the most rewarding aspects of producing Addy & Uno is the reaction of parents whose children have challenges similar to those depicted in the show, who tell him that they are finally able to see the world through their child’s eyes. A TYA production that fulfills this vital function for differently-abled children and their parents is long overdue. According to D’Angora, “(This) show should have happened a long time ago.”
When he took on the role of producer, D’Angora brought his long-time friend Anastasia Somaza on board as a consultant. Somaza, who uses a wheelchair as the result of cerebral palsy, is a disability advocate whom many may recognize from the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where she spoke about the importance of inclusion and respect for those who are differently-abled. Somaza feels that the production “breaks down barriers around disabilities,” and that it is as much for adults as it is for children in that it reinforces the message that everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be allowed to “dream big.” Somaza rejects the idea of tailoring kids’ ambitions to fit society’s preconceptions about ability. Her advice to parents is to “Invest in…children who have disabilities; believe in them!”
To anyone sitting in the audience of Addy & Uno, Somaza’s words have the ring of truth. The show’s impact is apparent simply by looking at the faces of the families. The audience is included throughout the story. Addy and Uno ask for advice and the children heartily chime in with encouragement; they learn how to sign, they even dance along to the music. Their open-minded curiosity and engagement is infectious: it’s obvious that they see themselves in the characters and quickly come to view them as friends. This is evident at the meet-and-greet the cast hosts after every show, when the children have the chance to interact with the actors and see the puppets up close. At the meet-and-greet I attended, I heard the story of a hearing-impaired child who eagerly waited to meet “Seemore,” the puppet who is also hearing-impaired. Unfortunately, the actor who plays Seemore (Stephen Velasquez, in the performance I saw) had to leave right after that particular performance. Tom went backstage and brought the puppet out, and the child immediately leapt up and gave him a big hug.
Anastasia tells the story of watching a child with cerebral palsy listening to RJ (Brent Jones), a puppet who uses a wheelchair, sing a song called Watch Me Fly. “He looked like he really wanted to fly. It was beautiful to see him have a character that looked like him on stage for the first time.” Jones expressed how grateful he feels to have the opportunity to sing this song in the show: "It’s important that the parents see that their children can do things and still are able to dream in a big way.”
The cast talks warmly about the show’s two “super fans," Henry and Aiden, who have seen almost every show and even made their own Addy & Uno puppets. “They know the show by heart,” says Noah Pyzik. Henry and Aiden hold lifetime passes—they can see the show whenever they want. Their families told me that the boys really connect with the show. Bonnie Gleicher, who wrote the music and lyrics for Addy & Uno explains, “What's amazing is that these kids now feel like these characters are their friends and they come to the show, they're literally seeing their friends every week. I think it's so amazing for the whole cast to feel like we can be a friend to all these kids.”
Onstage, the actors physically represent the challenges represented by their puppet characters. For instance, Brent Jones uses in a wheelchair for the performance (although not offstage). Vanessa Pereda-Felix, who plays Melody—a visually-impaired character—holds a walking stick, just like her puppet. Likewise, Stephen Velasquez wears a hearing aid while performing. To the actors and the show’s producers, proper representation is of the utmost importance and every puppet is built expressly to incorporate the character’s specific needs. Everyone involved in the show expresses how much they have learned about living with disabilities. Gleicher says, “It's like a whole world is suddenly revealed to you, like you were wearing glasses and you switch to contacts, you have this world open up where you see… handicapped signs and people with walking sticks. And you realize this is a population that needs to be recognized. We need their song; they need to feel like they can fly.”
As composer and lyricist, Bonnie Gleicher believes that the characters’ experiences are perfectly suited to musical interpretation. “When I first heard their story I instantly got chills because it felt so soulful, I could hear how playful and how heart-warming it could be, how sensitive it had to be,” she says. “These characters are experiencing so many obstacles every day, and they do it with such humor and such hope and such joy.” For Gleicher, the music acts as a kind of emotional shorthand, allowing the audience to “instantly feel for the characters and…get in their head(s).” Gleicher’s goal for the music “to be touching and sensitive toward the disabilities and feeling in way that it felt pure.”
The puppets, in turn, provide an ideal tool to engage children. Caitlin Donohue believes it is “one way to educate them that isn't their usual structure in school. It's more inclusive. It's just a fun way for them to learn. I don't think if it was just us telling the story, of course you'd still (have) a very special story, but I don't think it would have the impact that it's had.”
“It lets people basically brace for something that can be a really heavy topic… in a way that's actually colorful and fun,” Gleicher says. “So when kids see the puppets they fall in love with their vibrancy and they get to know the characters, they see their jokes and their dancing and their ability to sing loudly…then they also understand that they're like these very resilient people.”
The show feels especially important considering the current social and political climate. “This world is so polarized right now and everybody's differences are highlighted, usually in a negative way,” Donohue says. “So this show really does the opposite of that. It says, look, here are these differences and it really showcases them, but it shows why they might be more amazing and more special then maybe at first glance.” Addy & Uno emphasizes celebrating differences while also focusing on what people have in common: Uno and Greg (one of the school’s bullies, played by Bryan George Rowell) both love math. Cindy, another bully, loves rockets, just like RJ.
At the center of the show is an anti-bulling message. “I feel like just being a more open human, just being willing to share your heart with people,” Rowell says. “I think that it's a scary thing for a lot of kids. And the show is all about owning who you are and also accepting everybody else. I think if people were more aware of everyone else they would become more accepting and compassionate.” The actors hope the legacy of the show will be to inspire children to befriend someone to whom they otherwise wouldn’t have reached out.
Perhaps most meaningfully to theatre artists, the show highlights how much representation matters, especially to those who might feel different or left out. “If the world is a stage, then the world is very diverse. We need to be seeing that diversity on the stage,” Gleicher notes. This polarizing time is “absolutely the best time to have something where people walk out feeling wonderful. It’s about people who really value each other, and once you can be kind to each other incredible things happen.”
As for the show’s future, everyone involved is intent that the production continue to reach as many people as possible. “We would love for all kids to be able to see the show and feel represented,” Pyzik says, “so whatever form it takes, … a tour, if it’s that different schools own the production, whatever reaches the most children and can change the most lives and touch as many families as possible. We want to make it accessible to everybody.” The show has launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $75,000. Part of the purpose of the fundraising is to halve the cost of tickets, making the show to be accessible to people at any income level.
I came out of Addy & Uno We with a fresh realization that we are living in a time where compassion and empathy are especially vital. Perhaps theatre for all age levels should be reminding us to give everyone the opportunity to feel accepted and loved exactly the way they are. “The show is important because we’ve never seen a musical geared towards children that highlights all these different kids with different abilities, and highlights what makes them special and unique,” says Brent Jones. “I think now it is important that children see themselves in a positive light and not a negative light, especially in the media.” Addy & Uno reminds both children and adults that kindness, above all else, makes all the difference.
Addy & Uno runs Saturdays at noon at The Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row. Directed by Donna Drake. Music and Lyrics by Bonnie Gleicher. Based on a concept and book by Nava R. Silton, Ph.D. With Kate Ryan, Amanda Lopez and Derek Murphy. Tickets and information available at AddyandUno.com.