Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD
Little Lake Theatre Company ascends with their production of “Captain Louie Jr. ” Anthony Stein adapted this musical from Ezra Jack Keats’ book “The Trip,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Little Lake’s former artistic director, the stunningly fabulous Jena Oberg, flies high in directing this youth production. Oberg stages this production in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The entire production is performed in both American Sign Language and spoken English, and Oberg creatively unites the two youth groups, achieving an effortless flow.
The play centers on Louie (Roderick Mihoerck) who has just moved and is facing all the challenges of new kid life: missing and longing for his old home and friends while worrying about finding new friends and his place in a new town. We’ve all been Louie at multiple points, trying to figure out where we fit, whether that’s from a childhood move, starting college, beginning a new job, or joining a new friend group.
Mihoerck is deaf and communicates via ASL as well as via his favorite toy, a plane named Big Red (Madeline Dalesio). Dalesio provides the voice for Mihoerck’s signing, and the two of them unite in seamless harmony that mirrors that of a child with his favorite toy. Mihoerck never misses a beat, and his red-headed Louie sharply commands the theatre without saying a word. Dalesio’s stunning voice soars to perfection in the musical numbers. Big Red transports Louie to his old neighborhood for a Halloween night of trick or treating with his old friends.
Oberg’s creativity is compelling. She pairs speaking and signing kids for dual casting of roles like Archie (spoken by Colin Bozick and signed by Ben Vinzani), a friend from Louie’s old neighborhood. Bozick and Vinzani complement each other perfectly in their portrayal of Archie. Older kids who can speak and sign perform a single role. Roberta (Ava Arnold) signs as she speaks and sings, and her signing adds a fascinating visual to her performance.
Oberg cannot be praised enough. During the production, she was sitting on the floor facing the stage and signing to the kids to ensure they were all following along. However, she was clearly there for enhanced comfort as the kids were so well-rehearsed that her presence was more security blanket than instruction.
Carly Trimble-Long’s set was appropriately homespun sweet with kid-painted clouds, and prop designer Chris Martin’s Big Red plane was exactly what a kid would imagine.
With an ensemble cast, Oberg takes advantage of simple costume changes like gloves and finger lights. These elements from costume designer Jessica Kavanaugh all draw attention to the signing hands.
As I was leaving the theatre with my 10-year-old, another boy of roughly the same age ran up and asked if my son was in the play. Before we could utter a reply, he rushed on saying that he “loved it, and it made him cry” and then dashed across the theatre. We all know kids are honest critics. They lack the trappings of artifice and filters that make us adults speak more circumspectly.
This moment of pure heartfelt sentiment from one stranger to another that was sparked by the community of theatre makes one unfailingly hopeful and confident in a better future. Just as the deaf and speaking communities come together seamlessly to create a better together production, so too can the world positively evolve forward. A line in one of the final songs is “I’ll keep your smile inside me when I’m home again,” and one leaves the theatre smiling both inside and out, ready to climb aboard Big Red and ascend to a more inclusive future.
Captain Louie Jr. runs through October 9th at Little Lake Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets to this unforgettable, one-of-a-kind show, please visit https://www.littlelake.org/captainlouiejr