Nancy Sasso Janis
OnStage Connecticut Critic
Western Connecticut State University’s Department of Theatre Arts brought back two shows this weekend in a double header of affordable family fun for the July 4th weekend. Director Anthony DiPoto told me this was the first time that the department has offered one $10 ticket for both shows, which allowed a one- hour break between the performances for parents and children to grab lunch. If the program proves successful, the plan for future show combinations would be to offer food trucks parked nearby during the break.
While both shows had been previously produced at WCSU, they had been recast for these weekend performance. Based upon the quality of the one-hour shows that I saw on Saturday, I hope that the program will continue for other young audience members and their parents to enjoy.
First off, the Mainstage Theatre located at the magnificent Visual and Performing Arts Center on the West Side Campus of WCSU in Danbury is both comfortable and up-to-date in every way. A huge lobby and box office area greeted audience members upon arrival. In the theater, state of the art lighting was utilized beautifully, as were the balconies that circled the house.
Quite a bit larger than the WAMS Apron Stage, it also had that very modern feel and the WCSU students used it well. The director of both shows is an adjunct instructor of Theatre Arts at WCSU and Marika Di Carlo served as stage manager. Dylan Dineen designed the impressive lighting for both shows and Zach Charles was the sound designer.
First up at 11am was the show ‘Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.’ Everyone's favorite cat comes to mischievous life in this theatrical adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic. The one act “play with sound effects” was an engaging piece that is done by adults for young children. Lovers of the original will not be disappointed as they are transported into the home of Sally and her brother that we know so well. Every single one of Seuss’ words from the classic tale are there and the seven actors didn’t miss a beat.
The performance opened with a dance number performed by the Cat, two little cats and the narrator to some iconic musical pieces. Lit well, it set the playful mood well.
The Cat himself was played to perfection by Howard Powell; the young actor was lanky enough for the role and he nailed the comic elements as his character turned a rainy afternoon into a crazy and amazing adventure. He did well with the pantomime, juggling and just a bit of improv. Lauren Bell served as the committed narrator of the Cat’s escalating tale and she gave it her all throughout her performance.
Joseph DeVellis played the brother of Sally and Jaclyn Mercer was his adorable and funny sister. In her blond curls, she reminded me of a young Kelly Ripa. Alex Allyn and Alicia Napolitano were the naughty Thing 1 and Thing 2 in wild blue wigs. Ryan Taylor was charming in the role of the always-worrying fish; he acted along with his orange puppet as well as any performers in ‘Avenue Q.’
Run crew for this show included Leah Ciccone and Kayla Murphy and they moved about the fabulous Seuss-inspired set pieces with break-neck speed. The iconic flair of Dr. Seuss’ pen was consistently on every costume, every set piece and every one of the numerous props.
During the break for lunch, the students transformed the stage into the set for ‘The Snow Queen,’ scheduled to begin at 1pm. The tale by Hans Christian Andersen was brought to life by the same cast members of WSCU students and they got to show off their range of acting ability. The beautiful set was covered with cursive storybook writing and could have served as one for a chilly ‘Into The Woods.’ There was a brief backlit shadow play that was also done well.
This time Ms. Bell played a Lapland Lady who also served as a kind of narrator of the story of the lonely queen; I will use the adjective that I usually reserve for Kristen Jacobsen when I call her performance “luminous.” The queen herself was a large and beautiful rod puppet operated well by two cast members. Leah Ciccone played a rather mean Robber Girl who thankfully has a change of heart. as well as other ensemble parts.
Ms. Mercer played the lovely and brave Gerda, while Mr. DeVellis came back as Kai, the young boy that is stolen by the queen and must solve a puzzle in order to leave her icy castle. Ms. Murphy played Gerda’s doting grandmother and one of a pair of bird puppets and Ms. Napolitano this time played a magical Flower Lady. Mr. Taylor played another animal in this show and he was a riot as a huge reindeer named Moo. Ms. Allyn covered the roles of a hobgoblin and a boy. Mr. Powell took off his Cat makeup to play another hobgoblin, a loud crow kept captive by Robber Girl, a second boy and the main Snow Queen Puppeteer.
The story had plenty of adventure and the actors could not have been more professional. Overall, I was very impressed with the level of all of the technical aspects and the excellent costumes. These two productions are exactly the type of shows that I would be thrilled to bring my class of first grade students to enjoy as perhaps their first introduction to live theatre.