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With grace and charm and balletic choreography, STELLALUNA is a delight at TOY, but only 3 shows remain.

THE BASICS: STELLALUNA, adapted for the stage by Saskia Janse, based on the 1993 children’s book by Janell Cannon, with music by Guus Ponsioen, presented by Theatre of Youth, suitable for ages 4+ runs Saturdays May 19 and June 2 and Sunday May 20 at 2:00 p.m. (Note: there is one sensory-friendly performance Sunday morning, May 20 at 10:00 a.m. but there are no performances at all May 26 & 27).  At the Allendale Theatre 203 Allen Street (884-4400). Runtime: 40 minutes for the play and about 20 more for the very engaging “talkback” and puppet display. Add more if you want to pose for pictures at the end. Books available in the lobby from Talking Leaves Books.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Told with large puppets skillfully animated by a team of five actresses, this musical follows the book closely. A mother fruit bat heads out at night to feed on ripe fruit with her baby, Stellaluna (“Star” and “Moon”), but when another creature of the night – an owl – attacks the mom, Stellaluna falls, and falls, and ends up in a bird’s nest, where, with three young sparrows –  Pip, Flitter, and Flap – she is cared for by their mother, as long as she agrees to behave like a bird – i.e., only if she eats bugs, does not hang by her feet, and sleeps at night, not during the day. One night, however, Stellaluna meets other fruit bats, and reunites with her mom, as all ends well with the birds and the bats remaining friends.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Director Kyle Loconti, in a wonderful collaboration with set designer Kenneth Shaw, stage manager Brittany Wysocki, and puppeteer Adam Kreutinger has created a non-stop swirl of birds and bats, dialog and song, on a multi-level stage. Ms. Loconti has street cred in all aspects of theater and for her “directorial debut at Theatre of Youth” she brought all of that experience to bear, and it shows.

One could not overstate the grace and charm of the five actresses as they swoop together, fly apart, and make full use of the articulated puppets and the multi-level stage. Oh, and they can sing and act, too.

One of the hallmarks of Theatre of Youth is that they don’t just hire out-of-work actors because ‘kids don’t care.’

Yes they can! One of the hallmarks of Theatre of Youth is that they don’t just hire out-of-work actors because “kids don’t care.” Quite the contrary, the artistic standards at TOY are the highest, and these women have graced many other stages and have honed their skills in many serious dramas. After recently singing the lead roles in SPRING AWAKENING and MY FAIR LADY as well as being a finalist in the Buffalo Philharmonic’s “Buffalo Sings” competition, Leah Berst brings her soprano to the role of Stellaluna. Kelly Copps (Mama Bat/Mummy Bird) has always been able to bring an audience to tears with her vulnerability, and so we totally feel the love, even when she puts on “the mom voice” and lays down the law for her young charges.

Regular attendees at TOY know that Arin Lee Dandes (Flitter, Big Bat #2) is irrepressible.

Regular attendees at TOY know that Arin Lee Dandes (Flitter, Big Bat #2) is irrepressible. She has played adults in other venues, but her specialty is playing kids and, fun fact, she probably gets proofed more than any other actor in Buffalo. She just exudes zany. Sabrina Kahwaty (Flap, Big Bat #1) was very impressive too. She is perhaps the “poster child” for the notion that great actors can play anything. She can and she does. And, relatively new to the stage (where last year she knocked it out of the park at TOY as “Squirelle #1”), Alexandria Watts does some heavy lifting (literally) as Owl, Pip, and Big Bat #3 in STELLALUNA.

Sabrina Kahwaty is perhaps the ‘poster child’ for the notion that great actors can play anything.

At first, I was a little surprised at the limited color palette of this production, where the birds, and the bats, and the tree tops in which they live, and even the dresses of the actors, were of a muted gray-green nature. And, because at least one of the puppets requires three puppeteers to make it fly, you might expect traditional Bunraku style (where everyone wears black and, at least in “dezukai” style, only the “lead” puppeteer has an exposed face) but that wouldn’t work because each actor is also the sole manipulator and voice of another creature at different times during the show. So as far as covering the face, well that wouldn’t work because the puppeteers must also sing and talk and, in this production, their human faces add an emotional dimension to their puppet’s performance. So, in the end, the color palette does work well.

Not counting the “sensory friendly” (dim lights, no strobes, no loud noises, no sudden changes) show Sunday morning May 20 at 10 a.m, there are only three more public performances, all at 2:00 p.m. and they are May 19, May 20, and June 2. I would make a real effort to attend.

UP NEXT: Theater of Youth has announced all but the last show of its 2018 – 2019 season which begins with three remounts: PINKALICIOUS THE MUSICAL (September 14 – October 7), A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (December 1 – 16), and NEW KID (public shows October 19 and 20 only).

Lead image: L-R Sabrina Kahwaty, Alexandria Watts, Arin Lee Dandes, Kelly Copps, Leah Berst with puppet designer Adam Kreutinger  Credit: Theatre of Youth

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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