The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
March 4, 2007
I remember the Uncle Wiggily Longears character from books I read as a child. The books I remember, written around 1910 by Howard Garis, had many colorful, slightly grotesque illustrations by George Carlson, of the compassionate old rabbit and his adventures. Dramatist Laurel Hessing and composer Arthur Abrams have brought this character into the 21st century in their new musical play The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors now playing at Theater for the New City. This verse play is great for children, with its talking animals and heroic young characters, but it also has unexpected dramatic depth due to its topical featuring of Hurricane Katrina.
The story begins in New Orleans where a young girl named Merilee is separated from her beloved grandfather as she is rescued from the dangerous flood in the aftermath of Katrina. She is brought by her rescuers (including a young boy named Johnny who befriends her) to some relatives in New York, where she falls asleep reading an Uncle Wiggily book. In her dreams, she is Merilee Rabbit and Johnny becomes Johnny Squirrel, and they must journey through Central Park to find Uncle Wiggily Longears. Along the way they meet a variety of New York animals—coyotes, fireflies, beavers, cats, and alligators, among others. By the end, some wrongs are righted, lessons are learned, and Merilee awakens to find that it all was a dream. She is reunited with her grandfather, who survived Katrina.
The piece is produced and performed in a barebones kind of way, relying on simple but effective theatrical "magic" to tell its story. At first glance, there's nothing remarkable or unusual about this "fairy tale" for young audiences, but as the strong emphasis on contemporary themes and events becomes more and more prominent, ...Windblown Visitors becomes a more complex and moving show. The dramatization of young Merilee being passed out of a flooded home's window into a motor raft and her separation from her grandfather is a powerful scene for children and adults alike. The finale of the show is an anthem about the devastation of New Orleans sung by the full forces of the cast (35 actors!) that repeats the phrase "Nothing will stop us...we will build again!" Pretty potent stuff for a children's musical.
The topical references in ...Windblown Visitors further extend to a dramatization of the "Pale Male and Lola" saga. The real-life hawks, whose nest on a 5th Avenue building was threatened by a co-op board who wanted them ejected, are portrayed in the show as a pair of snobby socialite celebrities who come to understand the plight of the homeless through their experience as evicted outcasts. Again, not exactly the kind of material you necessarily expect in a theater for young audiences production. (One of the most unexpected treats of the evening is that Pale Male and Lola actually fly in the show.)
The jazz-inflected score by Arthur Abrams moves things gently along. The band, led by vibraphonist A.J. Mantas, is very good, especially some infectious Dixieland-flavored playing at the end by the trumpeter and drummer which has everyone dancing out of the theater. Production qualities are economical but very effective; some clever and funny effects with puppets and masks show the ingenuity of skillful designers working on a budget. A firefly ballet by director/choreographer Crystal Field is truly lovely.
The big cast appears mostly to be made up of non-professional performers, but in no way are the performances lacking in commitment and effectiveness. The huge range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, accents, and styles give ...Windblown Visitors a warm feeling of community, and watching the entire group passionately deliver the final anthem gave the impression of an entire city neighborhood joining forces for a common cause.
Of the actors, Clara Ruf-Maldonado and Christopher Grant, as Merilee and Johnny respectively, deserve special praise for their committed performances. Craig Meade is a fatherly presence both as Grandfather and Uncle Wiggily.