Monday, October 21, 2013

Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans—Oregon Children’s Theatre at the Newmark Theatre—downtown Portland



The King of Jazz

This musical is based on a book, from a series of children’s books on the Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne, called A Good Night For Ghosts.  The stage script/music is by Will Osborne, Murray Horwitz and the New Orleans legend, Alan Toussaint.  It is directed by Stan Foote (OCT’s Artistic Director), musical direction by Mont Chris Hubbard and choreography by Sara Mishler Martins.  It is playing through November 10th at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway.  For further information go to their site at www.octc.org or call 503-228-9571.

Louie Armstrong is certainly “The Man” when it comes to Jazz, Blues & Scat, especially New Orleans style.  I admit, I am a fan of this kind of music, so it can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned.  Another excellent example of the flavor of this period is the great, old-style, cel-animated, 2009 flick by Disney called, The Princess and the Frog.

Having not read the books by Osborne, I can only surmise that they are about two teenagers that go on a series of adventures via a time machine, the Tree House, and influence, in some way, past events that might need prodding.  In this case, the magical vehicle takes our intrepid adventurers, Annie (Ashlee Waldbauer) and Jack (Thom Hilton) to 1915 New Orleans.  Their mission:  To inspire a fourteen-year-old, Dipper (Javon Carter), aka Louie Armstrong, to take up the trumpet and give the world his gift of music.

But, in this case, he has his family to support, delivering coal and working on the docks unloading bananas.  Although he loves music and food, especially Gumbo, he has no time for joining with his musical pals, Happy (Nate Golden), Big Nose (Isaiah Rosales), and Little Mac (Xavier B. Warner).  This trio becomes a kind of Greek Chorus for the show, commenting on and moving the story along.

But Dipper’s new-found friends help him in his jobs and continue to enforce the fact that he needs to turn his talents toward music.  He regards them as “potato-heads” (having no brains) and ignores their advice.  But they are finally beset by the pirate ghosts of Jean LeFitte (Daniel East) and his crew (Haley Ward) but are defeated by Annie’s enchanted trumpet. 

Annie and Jack are forced to show Dipper the book from the future (a no-no is most stories of this genre) on his important inclusion in music history.  They also reveal to him the keys roles that Afro-Americans have, and will play, in American culture.  Finally Dipper is convinced of the power of music and sets his sights on a musical career…and the rest, as they say, is history.

The story may be slight but the theatrical/musical aspects of it, as an educational tool, are priceless.  And the amount of talent and energy embodied in this production are boundless!  The band, led by Hubbard, and on trumpet, Thomas Barber, are terrific.  And, once again, Martins shines as a Choreographer.  Some of her most recent triumphs have included Kiss of the Spider Woman at Triangle and her Drammy (and Sparkle Recognition) award winner for A Year in the Life of Frog and Toad with OCT.  I look forward to seeing more of this young lady’s steps in the future.

Waldbauer and Hilton are very pleasing as the adventurers.  Hilton playing the somewhat inept, nerdy pal and Waldbauer as the attractive and fearless leader of the duo.  They are a good match for Carter’s young Armstrong.  He is quite a find, as both his voice and acting, are very accomplished to perform this weighty role.  And the rest of the small cast do well in various roles to flesh out the story.  The numbers, “Gumbo,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Music Everywhere,” and “Dream in my Heart” were my favorites.

But (once again) to prove my theory that there are no small roles, Haley Ward bursts with talent in her role in the ensemble.  She has a dance solo in “Music Everywhere” that is a standout.  And her singing, as the Gumbo cook, in the number, “Gumbo,” is also a treat.  She is also a Drammy (and Sparkle Recognition) award winner.  As my friend said (not knowing her past history), “She sure knows how to sell herself onstage.”  Amen.  Hopefully she will find a future project to further her enormous talent!

And Foote, as the director, keeps the setting simple to allow his performers to take center stage and carry the story.  He has done well with this magical cast, designers and crew in creating such a satisfying production.  Bravo!

I recommend this show.  It also showcases some very talented young performers who deserve encouragement.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.