Sunday, May 7, 2023

"An American Tail: The Musical" at Children's Theatre Company

How did it take more than 35 years for the animated movie musical An American Tail to be adapted into a stage musical?! I guess because it's not part of the Disney machine. But for anyone who has been waiting for it, this world premiere production at Children's Theatre Company is worth the wait! And it couldn't come at a better time, with the recent rise in anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment (although sadly that's never gone out of style). This "American Tail" shows us the best version of American, where "anything is possible if we work together." Unfortunately there are indeed cats* in America (read: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, classism, ignorance, poverty, oppression), but if oppressed groups work together instead of fighting against each other, as the oppressors try to make them do, we can make a world in which everyone can achieve the American dream - the one that's promised to everyone but denied to many. That sounds like a lot for a kids' show, but it's also a really fun and engaging show that's such a joy to watch, no matter your age. It doesn't feel like a "lesson," but kids may walk away with a better understanding of the immigrant experience and the inclusive community America was always meant to be.  Or better yet - their parents will, because grown-ups seem to be the ones who don't get it these days.

the Mousekewitz family (photo by Glen Stubbe)
For anyone unfamiliar with the movie (like me), An American Tail tells the story of the Mousekewitz family who are forced out of their home in Russia by cats (a thinly veiled allegory for the pogroms against Jewish people that forced them to flee their homes). They decide to go to the promised land of America, where there are no cats and the streets are paved with cheese. During a storm, little Fievel falls overboard and is separated from his parents and sister Tanya (#bringtissues1). They arrive separately in America and try to make their way, soon discovering that it's not the fairy tale they were promised. The family lives in a tenement and they all go to work to pay for it, while Fievel ends up being forced into working in a sewing factory. He escapes with his new friend Tony, and the two soon meet the activist Bridget, who is trying to get all of the mice to join together to fight the cats. But all Fievel wants is to find his family, who have all given up hope that he's still alive, except for Tanya. The siblings sing the most well-known song from the movie "Somewhere Out There" to each other (#bringtissues2). After intermission, the "downtown mice" join up with the "uptown mice" (i.e., rich people, in the form of Gussie Mausheimer), as well as "Mouseany Hall." They hold a joint rally to fight against the oppression of the cats, which Fievel joins because he thinks he'll see his family there. Despite the evil Warren P. Rat's attempts to pit the mice against each other, they eventually find a way to defeat the cats and the family is reunited (#bringtissues3). The show ends with a stirring call for community and justice, fulfilling the promise of America, that had at least this audience member leaping to their feet.

all mice work together! (photo by Glen Stubbe)
CTC once again enlisted the talents of Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, the composing team
behind another one of their world premiere adaptations Diary of a Wimpy Kid, along with Itamar Moses, Tony-winning book writer of the lovely musical The Band's Visit. I can't speak to what was changed or added to the movie, but it's a well-written epic story that feels intimate in the lives of these relatable people, er... mice. It's really a classic hero story, as Fievel receives help along the way, his quest being to find his family. It's also a love letter to NYC, and the multi-cultural world of immigrants from many different places, with lots of place names and historical figures as clever mouse puns (Henry David Mouseau, mousegration from the South to Northern cities, the Mousopolitan Museum of Art). The musical includes several songs from the movie, including that famous one as well as "Never Say Never" and the popular "No Cats in America" (which I heard a lot of people singing as I was leaving the theater). From rousing anthems to lovely ballads to comic songs, the mostly new score covers it all. 

We've seen Taibi Magar's directing work in several plays at the Guthrie, and she turns her hand to musicals here. The story is playfully told (these are animals after all), but grounded in the very real emotions of the characters. The choreography by Katie Spelman is playful as well, so inventive and light and animal-like. The bug dance is particularly charming. Did I mention there were bugs? Plus birds (magically taking flight on a bicycle) and a few scary cats represented by huge eyes.

"Somewhere Out There" (Lillian Hochman and Matthew Woody,
(photo by Glen Stubbe)
Every time I see a show at the Children's Theatre I'm just wowed by the talent of the kids in this community. Matthew Woody as Fievel is just the sweetest thing, with a pure clear voice only heard from pre-pubescent boys, so present and confident and sometimes holding down the stage on his own. Lillian Hochman is also great as Tanya; their longing duet on "Somewhere Out There" is a tearjerker. The entire youth cast is so incredible there's really no differentiation between them and the adult professional cast, other than height (and sometimes not even that). The adult cast is pretty good too, including Becca Hart and Luverne Seifert, who are heartbreaking as Fievel's parents but really shine in their alternate roles - Luverne as the deliciously evil Warren T. Rat and Becca as the nerdy bug bookkeeper with specific bug-like movements. This double casting leads to some impossibly quick costume changes, delayed entrances charmingly covered by commenting on how many stairs there are up to the apartment. Ryan London Levin is a comic delight as Tony, and Kiko Laureano is a strong heroine in Bridget, their hesitant love story too adorable. Deidre Cochran as the French pigeon building a statue, CTC company members Autumn Ness (Gilded Age Gussie), Reed Sigmund (the Irish Mouseany Hall leader), and Dean Holt (multiple characters), and more fill out the big world of this story.

The suitcase theme continues from the curtain display before the show into the set itself. The Mousekewitz's Russian home looks like the inside of a suitcase, complete with plaid lining, and of course round mouseholes as entrances. The suitcase walls stay as the setting transforms to a boat or the city streets of NYC (brick wall backdrop and laundry hanging from clotheslines). The almost claustrophobic, but never crowded, feel of the suitcase set reminds us that these are mice living in a physically small but emotionally big world (scenic design by Jason Sherwood). 

Trevor Bowen's costume design couldn't be more different from that on display in Hamlet at the Guthrie, but no less impressive. The immigrant mice costumes are earthy and animalistic; showier pieces include an extravagant Gilded Age dress for Gussie, a gorgeous patchwork coat for the sewing factory boss, and the Mouseany Hall emerald green suit.

An American Tail: The Musical is a little like Fiddler on the Roof plus Ragtime, with a dash of Cats (minus the nonsensical parts). It's a story of immigrants coming together in the greatest city in the world and working together to make a better world for all of us. It's entirely satisfying in themes, music, characters, and execution. I hope Steven Spielberg (executive producer of the film who based the character of Fievel on his grandfather of the same name) comes to see it himself. I think he would be pleased.

The inspiring and joy-inducing An American Tail: The Musical continues at Children's Theatre Company in South Minneapolis through June 18.

*I do not approve of the depiction of cats as the representation of all that's evil in the world. We all know they're the best creatures on the planet, who only want to sleep and eat. And sometimes kill mice like my Moritz Stiefel does, but that's just who they are, it's not malicious.