The Little Angel Theater celebrates its 60th anniversary with this elegant but choppy adaptation of the famous Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler picture book. Samantha Lane is directing and adapting (alongside songwriter Barb Jungr) and although the puppets dazzle, it feels like the safety brakes are still on. The panto elements seem a little forced, the humor a little stiff and the young audience (perhaps in part due to the Covid?) Always at a distance a little too sure.
The emotional tone of the show is also a bit muddled. As the once scruffy giant roams the city and donates his smart new clothes to a group of needy animals, you can’t help but feel sorry for him. It’s like the joke is about the giant, which is a bit of a weird starting point. Are we laughing with or at the giant as he gets rid of his clothes one by one? Each animal received a great musical number from Jungr and, again, the darker emotional connotations are a bit awkward. There is a particularly eerie scene when the Mouse House is on fire, with flickering flames and glowing red lights. What seemed like harmless fun in the picture book suddenly looks very dark in the context of this largely fun family show.
The giant is played by Duane Gooden, with a cavernous giant face resting on his head. It’s a cute design but, with Gooden’s face tucked all over the place, he struggles to connect with his audience. Plus, while Gooden has a lovely, proud singing voice, she’s pretty muffled under that giant felt head.
It is with the nutty animal puppets that the show lights up and begins to feel more alive, more immediate and – most importantly – a lot more fun. Puppet designer Judith Hope has worked with Les Enfants Terribles and there is an anarchic and extravagant streak in her designs. The giraffe’s neck is really, really long; the fox is particularly cunning; the wonderfully, ugly dirty dog. Puppeteers Lizzie Wort and Gilbert Taylor work tirelessly and bring each animal to life with distinction and spirit. Every silly squeal, bark, or improvised bleat injects life into the show and reminds us of Little Angel’s vibrant legacy.