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John Tartaglia’s Imaginocean

The latest entry in midtown's tuners-for-tykes lineup, aquatic puppet musical "John Tartaglia's Imaginocean" sports some cute character design and an inoffensive believe-in-yourself storyline featuring three highly marketable fish. Dim script mostly plays second fiddle to the production's chief gimmick: a wash of blacklight that makes the puppets, set and much of the aud glow like a suburban roller rink. The 45-minute show labors under an erratic schedule, with multiple performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, but nonetheless seems tailor-made to deliver a licensed-merchandise bonanza.

With:
With: John Tartaglia, Donna Drake, Michale Shawn Lewis, Meledi Montano, Cathlene Grant, James W. Wojtal Jr., Stacey Weingarten, Ryan Dillon, Lara Maclean, Carole D'Agostino, Nate Begle, Jonathan Carlucci, Brian T. Carson.

The latest entry in midtown’s tuners-for-tykes lineup, aquatic puppet musical “John Tartaglia’s Imaginocean” sports some cute character design and an inoffensive believe-in-yourself storyline featuring three highly marketable fish. Dim script mostly plays second fiddle to the production’s chief gimmick: a wash of blacklight that makes the puppets, set and much of the aud glow like a suburban roller rink. The 45-minute show labors under an erratic schedule, with multiple performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, but nonetheless seems tailor-made to deliver a licensed-merchandise bonanza.

“Imaginocean” plays mere yards away from another Henson-inspired musical, “Avenue Q,” in which Tartaglia starred and was Tony-nommed. While this isn’t the first time Tartaglia has made the leap from puppeteer to writer-performer-producer — he created Disney Channel skein “Johnny and the Sprites” — the new production doesn’t have the creative spark that made him so much fun to watch in “Avenue Q” and in “Shrek the Musical.”

“Imaginocean” follows three fish — fraidy-cat Dorsel, thoughtful Bubbles, and big lug Tank — as they search the ocean for buried treasure. Songs are forgettable and story inane, but neither are really the point.

Even grownups inclined to find the showy technology irritating won’t get bored over the brief running time, and kids at the perf reviewed were delighted. Especially effective were the glowing bubbles that blasted out over the audience, leaving little splats of phosphorescence on everyone. (Adults will be pleased to discover that these vanish when the lights come back on.)

Overall, tech design goes for quality over quantity, so while the set is only occasionally present, the five main puppet characters and their jellyfish brethren are quite impressive. Helmer Donna Drake gets plenty of mileage out of the blacklight (the whole show uses the same wash, but the swirling jellyfish are particularly hypnotic in it).

Tartaglia voices three of the show’s seven characters, including leads Dorsel and Tank, while Drake voices Bubbles. Oddly, all voices and music are prerecorded and piped in over the puppeteers’ expert manipulation of the various sea creatures. Combined with the perfunctory story, the enterprise feels a little cynical and cold despite the tech artistry; one wonders if the ultimate goal of “Imaginocean” isn’t full automation.

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John Tartaglia's Imaginocean

New World Stages; 199 seats; $39 top

Production: A Philip Katz, Michael Shawn Lewis and John Tartaglia presentation of a musical in one act with music and lyrics by William Wade. Book by Tartaglia. Directed by Donna Drake.

Creative: Set, Robert Andrew Kovach; puppet design and fabrication, the Puppet Kitchen; sound, Matthias Winter; music direction, Drake; production stage manager, Emily Bray Schoenfeld. Opened, reviewed March 31, 2010. Running time: 45 MIN.

Cast: With: John Tartaglia, Donna Drake, Michale Shawn Lewis, Meledi Montano, Cathlene Grant, James W. Wojtal Jr., Stacey Weingarten, Ryan Dillon, Lara Maclean, Carole D'Agostino, Nate Begle, Jonathan Carlucci, Brian T. Carson.

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