Combining innocent slapstick, quaint amusement and jovial humor The Elephant and the Whale is a lighthearted and touching story for people with big hearts. Presented by the Chicago Children’s Theater in collaboration with Redmoon‘s Frank Maugeri (co-director), this wonderful tall tale, carved from an original story by Seth Bockley, Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, and Maugeri brushes fantasy with American history. The Elephant and the Whale charts the epic journey of a rag-tag family circus and their star elephant performer on a dip from fame to floundering disaster and back up to budding friendship. This marvelous fable plays with fictional snippets of folk Americana and the end of an era as the Hoogebeck Family show falls down on its luck and a villainous, opportunistic profiteer comes along with odious plans for our pachyderm heroine, Ella.

The performance starts out strong. With an engaging narrative and compelling plot, the actors set the stage with song and fancy. The musical numbers created  by Bockley and composer Kevin O’Donnell, befit any big budget spectacle, providing ernest melodies and overall loveliness. The actors pull you in with their strong presence and adaptability. They carry the performance on seamlessly, maneuvering between cantastoria, toybox theaters, and combined shadow puppet animated projections with all the ease of a well orchestrated circus. The puppets capture the attention and the imagination in a vibrant way. By the end of the show, you feel like you’ve actually stepped back in time.

As an adult, I’m not sure how the youngsters in the press opening felt about it, the final act sort of limped along emotionally and aesthetically. I loved the shadow puppets but I felt a little lied to. I was expecting a lot more shadows, perhaps something more along the lines of the effort and mastery they exuded on the toy theaters. The production opted for animation, utilized shadow puppetry spectacularly, integrating live shadow work with the animated projection quite effectively. However, I will be honest about my anticipation for a more Lotte Reiniger-esque world of intricate shadow puppet play. Especially with such spectacular characters including the star elephant, Ella and the the somber whale. I felt the final act simply leaned too heavily on animation.

I was slightly disappointed the finale didn’t unitize shadow puppetry’s detailed and nuanced charm to pull along the story. Opting, instead, for an overly long animation sequence that didn’t seem to optimize on the talented actors’ puppeteer abilities. On the other hand, the depth which which the plot advances through the use of story box, toy theaters is impressive. The incredible cantastoria mixtures of song and unique wooden puppets move the work along with poised craftsmanship and artistry, fitting well within a world of matchbox wonder.

Overall the poetry and beauty of the play leaves you feeling warm and wonderful. This is a work of celebration, an exuberant effort, emphasizing good storytelling and dedication on all levels. The accessibility and likeability of the characters makes this production a must see. The play might fizzle out at the end, probably because it started so high up atop a mountain of hyperbolic magic and rides down so quickly for the 60 minute show, but the entire work is well worth it. Exhilarating surprises flopped about will surely bring out the kid in even the most stoic adult. Oh, and be sure to wear a raincoat if you sit in the front rows. You might get splashed by one of the whales they’ve got hidden backstage.

Here’s the full schedule of morning and evening performances.

When: Tuesday – Sunday April 10, 2013 – May 26, 2013
Where:  The Ruth Page Center for the Arts 1016 N. Dearborn Pkwy Chicago | (872) 222-9555
Cost: $25-$35, with pizza parties before or after the show!

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