SAN DIEGO — A floating paintbrush daubs a floating palette and proceeds to paint a disembodied hat, shoes, gloves and cane. The figure starts to dance and sing, even at one point tossing out the cane, which dances by itself for a few minutes.
No, it is not a cartoon. But it often seems like a cartoon brought to life. True to its title, it's "A Little Like Magic," a skillful and often enchanting puppet show, performed by the Famous People Players through Sunday at the Old Globe Theatre.
Under the guidance of Diane Lynn Dupuy, who conceived and directed the show, the 17 black-outfitted puppeteers achieve some remarkable effects as they move invisibly behind their florescent-swathed puppets in a black box flooded with ultraviolet light. There are vignettes calculated to charm the child and soothe the savage adult, from fish swimming gracefully in a stage-high ocean to chicken ballerinas competing for the spotlight to Santa Claus falling asleep in a rocking chair, three "Z"s materializing above his head.
But most remarkable of all are the Famous People Players themselves, mentally handicapped adults who have made an international name for themselves with their deft and at times dazzling work.
In fact, it is the 13-year-old Canadian troupe's propensity to dazzle that renders some of the less inspired moments in the script a bit sluggish. Now that the players have established a virtuosity in the "black light" arena, it would be nice if they could expand their range in the storytelling genre, perhaps plunging their creative dipper even deeper into their cartoon inspirations or even those of silent movies. (Actually, given their genius for "Fantasia"-like conceptions, a collaboration with Disney might prove fruitful for both organizations.)
Wishful thinking aside, it is easy to see why this delightful group has been pleasing audiences from Broadway to China to Las Vegas with a television movie and several TV specials in between.
There is the cleverness of a space scene in which R2D2 meets Superman who meets the Enterprise who meets Neil Armstrong making one small step for man and one giant step for mankind.
There are the sets and puppets by Mary C. Thornton (the mother of artistic director Dupuy), who demonstrates not only an immensely colorful vision but also a remarkably witty one, whether she is designing life-size celebrity caricatures of Michael Jackson, Liberace, Barbra Streisand and others (the focus of the company at its inception) or a stripper who strips down to the absolute nothing--that is, invisibility.
The all-important lighting is effectively done by Ken Billington. Neil Thompson nicely coordinates the eclectic mixture of music, from Camille Saint-Saens to George M. Cohan, with the subtle movement of the puppets.
As charming as the illusions are, one of the most winning segments in this production occurs near the end when the company turns the lights on the black box and shows how the puppets are, in fact, manipulated. The coordination that transforms three people, one holding a hat, a second white gloves and the third shoes, into one body, is fully as impressive as the image of the body itself. It's illustrative of the deft way the Famous People Players troupe works together. And that is a little like magic all by itself.
"A LITTLE LIKE MAGIC" Conceived and directed by Diane Lynn Dupuy. Set and costumes by Mary C. Thornton. Lighting by Ken Billington. Sound by Neil Thompson. With Darlene Arsenault, Lesley Brown, Else Buck, Michelle Busby, Sandra Ciccone, Charleen Clarke, Benedetto D'Onofrio, Maryann Goodwin, Kim Hansen, Gregory Kozak, Deborah Lim, Renalto Marulli, Linda Peake, Deborah Rossen, Mary Ann Thompson, Leonard Turner and Allison McTaggart. At 8 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. At the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.