Matthew Woody (Fievel) in the Children’s Theatre Company production of “An American Tail The Musical,” which runs through June 18, 2023 in Minneapolis. (Glen Stubbe / Children’s Theatre Company)
If you’ve ever left a theater performance mulling why its producers thought it important to present that particular show at that time, know that you won’t feel that after attending Children’s Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “An American Tail.”
At first blush, one could wonder why CTC chose to commission an adaptation of a 1986 animated feature inspired by stories passed down within the family of superstar film director Steven Spielberg. But the motivation becomes clear quickly in this energetic, entertaining and quite well-executed staging.
For surely playwright Itamar Moses (a Tony winner for 2017’s “The Band’s Visit”) and composers Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler looked around late last decade and saw that immigrants were being scapegoated for a host of American problems, our borders hardening against entry. So they set to work on a story from the late 19th century, when the country was far more welcoming to new arrivals and saw it as a central element to the national identity.
And it’s to our benefit that they did, for their adaptation of “An American Tail” is great fun, but also a valuable fable about finding hope at bleak times and seeing strength in our mix of many cultures.
Framed by a giant suitcase from the imagination of designer Jason Sherwood, the action takes us into the world of anthropomorphized mice who live lives largely paralleling those of the humans in their houses. We meet the Mousekewitzes at a Hanukkah celebration in Russia that’s broken up by some pretty scary cats, inspiring the family to set sail for America.
On the way, young Fievel goes overboard, but manages to catch a ride in a bottle and end up in lower Manhattan. There, he seeks his family while falling in with a French pigeon assembling the Statue of Liberty, racketeers, sweatshop workers, activists and aristocrats. As he and his family repeatedly miss one another, their experiences offer not only an involving adventure for younger audiences, but some clever social satire for the adults.
Director Taibi Magar has skillfully marshalled an enthusiastic cast of 20 in spinning this song-filled yarn, buoyed by a Mahler and Schmuckler score that employs multiple genres, including klezmer, jazz, R&B, pop, even an Irish jig. And the sound and style of 1930s musicals come into play in some memorable full-cast dance numbers, thanks to Katie Spelman’s delightful choreography.
Once you get past the inconsistency of the scale and just decide to roll with it, you’ll likely have a great time. I refer to the fact that — after those initial giant cats rout out the Mousekewitzes — every animal is about the same size, be they birds, mice, rats, cats or cockroaches. But Trevor Bowen’s costumes help make it all work just fine.
While the entire cast is strong, Matthew Woody carries much of the show on his small shoulders as Fievel, bringing the right mix of vulnerability and charisma to this engaging Everymouse. Meanwhile, Luverne Seifert shines as two contrasting characters, Fievel’s warm raconteur of a father and the conniving capitalist Warren P. Rat.
Also taking on multiple roles in convincing fashion is Becca Hart as Fievel’s mother and, most memorably, Rat’s cockroach accountant, who leads her insect ilk in a show-stopping dance number. And there’s also romance afoot, courtesy of Ryan London Levin in a star turn as Fievel’s chief ally, Tony, and Kiko Laureano as social justice warrior Bridget.
If this production ends up bound for Broadway, the producers would be wise to consider bringing this entire cast of talented Twin Citians along to the story’s city of origin.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘An American Tail’
When: Through June 18
Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
Tickets: $94-$15, available at 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org
Capsule: A very enjoyable production of a timely “Tail.”