Monday, September 29, 2014

Welcome to Busytown

Olympia Family Theater’s Season Opener

Attending Olympia Family Theater’s season opener in their brand new space was a special treat—heartwarming and funny. For starters, walking in to the former home of Capital Playhouse was a fun kind of déjà vu. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same. No longer partitioned as in former days, the lobby was much more spatial, and bright with beautiful wall murals designed by resident scenic designer Jill Carter, who also designed the beautiful set with a backdrop of a crowded scene painted with bright colors depicting the hustle of a busy little town in a style typical of children’s book illustrations with moveable and rotating set pieces to allow for easy scene changes engineered by scenic engineer David Nowitz.
The lighting and sound systems are also new (the Capital Playhouse equipment had been auctioned off); lighting and sound for OFT’s opening show is by Kate Arvin. I have nothing but the highest praise for the staff and volunteers who pulled off the giant feat of readying the space for opening night audiences.
And now on to the play itself: Busytown by playwright Kevin Kling with musical compositions by Michael Koerner. It is based on the book by Richard Scarry, directed by Jen Ryle and musically directed by Stephanie Claire.
Unlike many of the younger actors and audience members who grew up with Scarry’s books or whose children did, I was unfamiliar with them and grateful that notes in the program explained how his books differ from those of most other children’s book authors. They do not so much tell stories as ask questions to stir the imaginations of readers—complete with enjoyable but definitely not exclusive answers to those questions, answers that are designed to further stimulate thought. The big question is “What Do People Do All Day?” —a musical question about the residents of Busytown posed by the ensemble in a song following the opening number, “Busytown Theme.”
The residents (anthropomorphized animals) are letter carriers and bakers and fire fighters and a pickle car driver and Lowly the Worm, a hand puppet operated by Harrison Fry; and a very inquisitive cat named Huckle (Kate Ayers) who endlessly poses questions.
Her questions are answered in a series of musical vignettes presented by the large and talented cast with a backup trio that sings in the style of the Andrews Sister and occasionally breaks into do-wop harmony. The trio is Terri Charles, Emmalene Ryle and Carolyn Willems Van Dijk.
The entire cast is so good that I want to list them all, starting with the trio, each member of whom doubles as other characters:
·         Charles as Grocer Cat, Ryle as Bananas Gorilla and Van Dijk as Stitches
·         Ayers as Huckle and Train the Dog
·         Jeff Barehand as Alfalfa Dig Pig, Dr. Lion and Mate
·         Eric Crawford as Sgt. Murphy, Construction Worker and Airport Worker
·         Christine Goode as Nurse Nelly and Able Baker Charlie (the baker, of course)
·         Ryan Holmberg as Captain Salty and Humperdink
·         Vanessa Postil as Betsy Bear and Jason the Mason
·         Levi Somers as Mr. Frumble and Sparky
·         Chris Traber as Grandma Bear, Blacksmith Fox and Sawdust Carpenter
·         Priscilla Zal as Postman Pig, Farmer Pig and Firechief
Ayers is one of the most expressive, joyful and energetic actors you’ll ever see on stage as she has proven in her performances in OFT’s Lyle the Crocodile and her depiction of Gertrude Stein in Theater Artists Olympia’s Chamber Music. Her antics in the song “Grandma a Letter,” sung in duet with Postil, had audience members jumping out of their seats (Postil’s contribution on this song was great and Ayers was insanely funny).
Another of the many standout performances was turned in by Goode in a scene depicting her crush on Lowly Worm, and another that had kids in the audience going wild was Holmberg’s song, “Captain Salty.” I’ll forever remember him singing the line, “My favorite letter is Rrrrrrrr.”
Among many others who deserve special notice are costumers Becky Scott and Sally Fitzgerald, and scenic artist Jeannie Beirne who brought Carter’s design to life.
Following the show there was an impromptu tribute to Jen Ryle, co-founder of Olympia Family Theater, which brought her and a good portion of the audience to tears.
Busytown  runs Thurs.-Fri., 7 p.m., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.  through Sunday October 12. Arts Walk Open House with selected scene previews every half hour and a kid disco from 5-9 p.m., Oct. 3. The art of Angela Yoder in the  lobby.
612 4th Ave E, Olympia, 360-570-1638

Top from left: Christine Goode as Nurse Nellie, Jeff Barehand as Alfalfa Dig Pig and Kate Ayers as Huckle the Cat. Photo Credit: David Nowitz

Bottom: Kate Ayers as Huckle the Cat and Harrison Fry, ensemble member who puppeteers Lowly the Worm.  OFT’s Lowly puppet was designed and created by Jamie Jenson. Photo by Dinea de Photo

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