THE BLOG
10/12/2010 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: A Puss in Boots for Children of All Ages

Well, there's Hansel and Gretel, of course. The Magic Flute passes muster, and Peter and the Wolf might count. But the pickings are slim when you try to think of other operas -- or orchestral works -- conceived with children in mind that children can actually enjoy. Okay, Camille Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals and Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose figure in.

But what about Xavier Montsalvatge's less well-known 1947 Il Gato con Botas, or Puss in Boots, with its Nestor Lujan libretto? Given the production so creatively and humorously put together by the Gotham Chamber Opera, Tectonic Theater Project and Blind Summit Theatre, now at the New Victory, the 70-minute piece must be confirmed once and irrevocably for the Children's Opera Annals.

Everything about this version -- in which singers interact with puppets designed by Nick Barnes, whose tongue is firmly in cheek -- registers as so utterly charming that any adults viewing it without a child next to them will want desperately to bring one to the very next showing. The music from Catalan composer Montsalvatge, conducted with unfailing sensitivity and vigor by Neal Goren, isn't groundbreaking. It's in an instantly recognizable and accessible romantic mode, but it's non-stop lovely and includes a sung love letter to melt the stoniest heart and a concluding quartet that Giuseppe Verdi would envy.

The story is a random string of scenes not necessarily geared for mounting suspense, but it works nevertheless, as anything might when delivered with as much polished vocal beauty as this one is. A miller (Craig Verm on opening night; there's an alternating cast) inherits a lanky and pole-skinny cat (as designed by Barnes and manipulated by three dedicated puppeteers) for which he has no use or interest.

The cat (sung by Ginger Costa-Jackson) has a mouth on him, however, and, at first demanding a dashing boots-based outfit, cannily promises the miller a life of fortune and fame. Whereupon the animal makes good on his word by completing several tasks that result in the miller enchanting a local princess (Nadine Sierra). Then, after the enterprising feline executes such feats as subduing an ogre in order to appropriate his castle, the miller, now the newly designated marquis, gain the princess's hand from the king (Kyle Pfortmiller) in a happily-ever-after marriage finale.

Along the way, director Moises Kaufman, puppetry director Mark Down and choreographer Sean Curran keep the music, the laughter and the wall-to-wall enchantment coming. Especially amusing is a sequence in which the miller pretends -- at the cat's suggestion -- to be drowning so the princess can dive off her yacht and save him.

There's also a sequence in which the cat convinces the ogre -- made up of body parts resembling nothing so much as a stack of huge yams -- to change shapes so he can be subdued. This only happens, however, after the ogre (Kevin Burdette, whose bass must still be reverberating in the hall) has intoned a song with the cunning lyric "Here's to the man who drinks to get drunker."

(Never mind that this clever shape-shifting segment -- wherein the ogre becomes, respectively, a fleet lion, a stunningly Technicolor bird and a plump and menacing rat -- can be seen as virtually the same routine across town at the Metropolitan Opera's current Das Rheingold. Fairy tales are all drawn from the same ancient myths, and the one here also incorporates an even more modern Tom and Jerry influence.)

There are so many delightful elements making up this irresistible Puss in Boots that it's difficult to know where to start lavishing praise. Certainly, Barnes's contribution is extremely worthy, and the puppeteers wearing black garb and black caps while working the puppets are visibly committed to their tasks. Set designer Andromache Chalfant does a fine job of suggesting changing venues with simple pieces. Two silver sheets waved represent the water in which the miller -- Verm initially and then for giggles by a small puppet -- is supposedly flailing.

The singers are hardly slouches, either. Verm, Sierra, Costa-Jackson, Pfortmiller and Burdette apply gorgeous polish to the billowing melodies. Arranging dances for a mix of puppets and live actors has to be a challenge, but Curran does it easily, especially when he dreams up movements for a half-dozen rabbits that figure hilariously in the proceedings.

If there's a moral lesson for children to take away from Puss in Boots, it's elusive. Maybe it's something to do with being kind to animals. Maybe not. But there's nothing wrong in kids -- and adults, too -- leaving an auditorium knowing that a quality good time has its valuable benefits. This one absolutely does.

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