“Swiss Family Robinson” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Linney Theatre (Closed July 17, 2013)

Book by John Kennedy and Patrick Kennedy
Music and Lyrics by John Kennedy
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“It will make me happy to think that my simple narrative may lead some [children] to observe how blessed are the results of patient continuance in well-doing, what benefits arise from the thoughtful application of knowledge and science, and how good and pleasant a thing it is when brethren dwell together in unity, under the eye of the parental love.” – William (Father) in Johann David Wyss’ “The Swiss Family Robinson”

In Johann David Wyss’ “The Swiss Family Robinson,” the worst disaster in their ten-year stay is the loss of their donkey to a thirty-foot boa constrictor. There are no donkeys and not one boa constrictor in John and Patrick Kennedy’s reimagining/retelling of Wyss’ classic children’s story. There is another family with a daughter and there are anti-pirates – though the family here is quite different and quite unique (a group of orphans who have grown up on the island with their housemother/queen) and the pirates are a group of rogue French sailors who arrived on the island in a different scenario but are equally fearsome.

John Kennedy’s music serves his lyrics well and the lyrics and book move the story forward with clarity and interest. Sometimes the music has a sameness about it but the styles vary enough to make the score interesting: there are Latin American beats (calypso, tango, etc) and other easily identifiable musical genres. All of the numbers are easy listens and some are near perfection: Elizabeth’s (Elisa Van Duyne) “Upon This Peaceful Little Island” and the Family/Hufi/The French “High Atop a Banyan Tree” are exquisite and of Broadway quality. On the other hand, “Jungle Drums” is less than satisfying and warrants review and revision.

The story’s original themes of “brotherhood,” tolerance, acceptance, and love of knowledge abound in this production and are complimented with Emily’s (Jessie Shelton) Eastern theme of being “here and now” and her brilliant monologues on sexual equality and equal rights – which she does not have to attain in traditional ways.

Kiku (Barbara Tirell), Lulu (Sam Tedaldi), Zizi (Emily Shoolin), and the Hufi (Heidi Kloster, Danielle Gimbal, Meg Schneider) are orphans-now-grown who readily accept their introduction to a world of “invaders” inhabited by Elizabeth and John (Paul DeBoy) and their sons. These sons are picture perfect and serve Wyss’ original “wholesome” image well. Indeed, some tousled hair would have been nice to see on Fritz (Sergio Pasquariello), Jack (Matt Mundy), and Ernst (Michael Lorz.) The French are fabulous: Francois DuBois (Patrick Oliver Jones) and Monsieur Spoo (James Patterson) strive valiantly to be known as anything but pirates.

The conflicts drive a pleasing plot and, in the end, tolerance wins out: almost everyone pairs up and is married by Emily’s father who returns to rescue her and it appears that everyone lives happily ever after. What could be better than that?

This is a solid piece of musical theatre with respectable production values and a uniformly outstanding ensemble cast. One expects to see more of this new musical after it completes its NYMF run. I would expect its final performance to be sold out so call for tickets today.