By MIKE DUNHAM
“Bring Back the Sunshine” is Fran Lautenberger’s swan song – though swans are about the only animal not included in the show. Lautenberger is closing out her 26 year career at the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Theatre and Dance with a delightful fantasy written by herself with Jon Minton and brimming with the wild costumes and puppet forms that have fascinated her through the years.
The fairy tale occupies some of the same territory occupied by “Alice in Wonderland” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” It is engrossing for younger audiences and wittily entertaining for adults.
The story involves Elena, the daughter of a Duke. Her husband is imprisoned by an evil, rapping General and his conniving rat henchman. To free him, and return sunshine to the forest realm, she must search out a mysterious old book and follow the instructions to weave a magical cloth. In her quest she is assisted by a ground squirrel, a revenge-minded raven, a forgetful fox, a self-sacrificing butterfly and other enchanted characters. Since there’s music involved, the performers must switch between singing voices and cartoonish accents.
Some of the puppets are Muppetish designs where the actor stays in plain view. Others are life-size. One particularly complicated item is a table full of dithering library committee members – essentially a single puppet featuring several characters and manipulators.
Lautenberger’s touch is also evident in the giant masks worn by the General and a loquacious troll. At the climax of Act I, giant, mattress-size, Shakespeare-quoting spiders drop from the ceiling, including over the audience, sometimes teasing the hair of startled viewers. Anita Algiene’s set makes maximum use of UAA’s Harper Studio Theatre.
The music, accompanied by Mari Hahn on flute, Lynette Harper on piano and Lautenberger on ukulele, written by Hahn and Minton, is mostly perfunctory with a few Sesame Street-style songs. But there is a complex ensemble, “Deep in the woods,” in a magically musical spot in Act II.
Alyssa Barnes, Elena, is the most active character, on stage in almost every scene. Eric Holzschuh particularly stood out as a campy, nasty General. Daniel Alvarez-Lemp turned in supercharged and over-the-top turns as both the Duke and the troll. The big cast included many performers in multiple roles.
Weak points included the singing, which could benefit from better pitch and diction, and the length. At two hours it felt a tad too long. I’d start whacking at the “Scarecrow-I’m-going-to-miss-you-most-of-all” finale.
Nonetheless, “Sunshine” is cleverly written and sumptuously staged. The extravagance of the décor and props makes one hopeful that it will be reprised from time to time as a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly evergreen.
The show continues with performances at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays through April 22 in the UAA Fine Arts building.