In content, style and venue, Stephen Schwartz’s new tuner gives fair warning that it is no “Wicked.” Nor is it anything like “Pippin,” “Rags,” “Godspell” or any of the composer-lyricist’s other childlike shows for grownups. “Captain Louie” is a bona fide kiddie show, but one caught in an awkward stage of theatrical adolescence — too modest to appeal to a sophisticated market, but too ambitious to settle for the artful simplicity of the book by Caldecott Prize-winning author Ezra Jack Keats on which it was based.
Keats’ 1978 picture book “The Trip” used cut-and-paste illustrations in simple geometric shapes to draw young readers into the vivid imagination of its hero, a little boy named Louie who has just moved to a new neighborhood. Feeling lonely and missing his old gang of friends, clever Louie constructs a diorama of his old neighborhood in a shoebox (see how-to instructions in the play program) and then builds a bigger model of his little red plane to fly back home for Halloween.
Meridee Stein’s easy-on-the-eye production takes its visual charm from Keats’ original designs. Boxy set units and cut-out construction pieces have the two-dimensional look — and child-friendly humor — of a pop-up book. Costumer Elizabeth Flauto’s jaunty footwear (striped socks, red sneakers, green roller skates) contributes another layer of cuteness without laying it on too thick. And when magic is called for, as it is when Louie imagines himself to be inside the shoebox-world of his old neighborhood, the lighting takes over.
The light show and multimedia effects devised by Joshua White are, in fact, the tech equivalent of magic. Eavesdropping on Louie’s private thoughts, the lights beam back abstract designs in color-saturated patterns that flicker across a back screen and bounce off the walls.Schwartz’s bright and cheery score doesn’t have the same quality of castles-in-the-air abstraction, but it’s light enough to get Louie aloft and on his way. Songs like “Big Red Plane,” which takes him to his old neighborhood, and “Captain Louie,” which flies him back to his new life, convey a joyful sense of freedom that keeps faith with Louie’s flights of fancy. (For the record, the composer was in on this project from its inception as “The Trip,” a shorter version that played locally and at the Kennedy Center in 1983-84.)
What grounds this kiddie tuner (which has been retooled with one new character, along with some new scenes and songs) is its sense of literalness. Aside from the lighting design, which never touches planet Earth, the show labors entirely too hard to objectify story elements that are best left to the imagination — or a more imaginative way of depicting them.
Louie’s model of his little red plane, for instance, is an ungainly contraption that has no wings and bears no resemblance to Keats’ whimsical, flat-planed drawings. In the same way, the makeshift costumes in which Louie’s friends artlessly disguise themselves are reproduced here with the meticulously finished detail of a classy Garment District rag shop.
But, creepy as it sounds, the most off-putting feature of the production is the hard-sell performance style of the young actors playing Louie and his friends.
Alexio Barboza, a pint-sized thesp blessed with an angelic face and heavenly pipes, plays the smallest of the neighborhood kids with an affecting lack of guile. Among the chorus of clarion-clear voices, Sara Kapner has an exceptionally beautiful sound.
But there is no childlike innocence or wonder in the slick perfs of this overdrilled ensemble of savvy pros. Despite their obvious youth, these kids seem far too mature for their roles — and much too sophisticated to be hanging with little Louie, who appears to be a small-boned, delicate child of no more than 6 or 7 in Keats’ drawings. Here Louie is played by Jimmy Dieffenbach, a stage-seasoned and musically secure thesp. He’s a big, strapping lad whose genial smile and hearty manner make him a good candidate for Tom Sawyer but a peculiar choice for Keats’ dreamy boy.