At children's musical 'Mirandy and Brother Wind,' exuberance in the air
By Celia Wren
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Think dream ballets went out with the likes of Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille? Think again. There's an example of the genre in "Mirandy and Brother Wind," the enchanting new children's musical that Adventure Theatre and African Continuum Theatre Company have conjured into existence. Based on the 1988 picture book about a little girl who wants the wind to partner her in a cakewalk contest, "Mirandy" breezes along with funny stage business and appealingly quirky characters, aiming its narrative at the young'uns. (The producers recommend the show for children age 4 and up.) But gusting beneath the comedy and candid storytelling is such musical and conceptual sophistication that you're not surprised when the ostensibly sleeping Mirandy frolics through a dance reverie in time-honored showbiz style.
The hour-long "Mirandy," artfully directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, is full of such lovely touches. Librettist Michael J. Bobbitt and composer/lyricist John L. Cornelius II have preserved the winsome spirit of the book - written by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney - while fleshing out its characters and elaborating on its portrait of a 1906 African American community in the rural South. In an affecting bit of retooling, the musical's creators have also given more prominence to the idea that the wind is the embodiment of freedom. As Grandma says to Mirandy: "Can't nobody put shackles on Brother Wind, chile. He be special. He be free."
When Brother Wind makes his first appearance in the show - which continues at Adventure Theatre through Feb. 13, with a run at the Atlas Performing Arts Center from Feb. 25 to March 13 - he's an eerie silver figure sailing over the treetops. (Puppet designer Ksenya Litvak devised the effect.) It's a particularly magical moment because the musical's talented actors and designers have already given the story a folksy grounding. With rustic buildings and quilts juxtaposed against a hilly landscape, designer Tim Jones's set echoes Pinkney's illustrations. The set often bustles with activity as the characters busy themselves with stacking wood and other chores.
Chores aren't much to the taste of Mirandy, filled head to toe with girlish exuberance by actress Felicia Curry. Whether she is prancing about with a pepper mill, hoping to make Brother Wind sneeze (as a prelude to capturing him), or holding her breath until she nearly collapses (to trap the wind in her lungs), Curry's Mirandy is droll and adorable. In other roles: Ayanna Hardy is memorably antic as the boy-crazy cakewalk champion Orlinda; Lynne Streeter Childress infuses Grandma with bossy zest; and Jobari Parker-Namdar aces his pratfalls as Mirandy's klutzy friend Ezel. Calvin McCullough brings capering joviality to Brother Wind, decked out in black and sky-blue evening clothes with a top hat. (Kendra Johnson designed the colorful costumes.)
All the performers - especially Eric Williams as Orlinda's dance partner, Monroe - handle the vivacious choreography (created by Bobbitt, Adventure's producing artistic director, and Fabian Barnes, artistic director of the Dance Institute of Washington). Cornelius rolls out joyous syncopated tunes for the hoofin' sequences, but the composer-lyricist - whose credits list numerous classical works, including a commission from the Houston Grand Opera - ranges further afield, too, especially in his accompaniments and underscoring. Here the music has spiky jazz flavors, there it shimmers with symphonic lushness or hints at spirituals. Usually it incorporates a restless energy that suggests the roaming of the zephyr itself.
Developed with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, "Mirandy" kicks off an initiative in which Adventure Theatre will dramatize children's books about the African American experience. So far, the project has the wind in its sails.
Mirandy and Brother Wind based on the book by Patricia C. McKissack and Jerry Pinkney; libretto and choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt; music and lyrics, John L. Cornelius II; directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Music direction, Darius Smith; lighting design, Curtis Hodge; sound, Christopher Baine; props, Dre Moore. With Jeri Marshall and Soneka Anderson.