Anime Momotaro

Hey, Batman: park the Batmobile. And, Spiderman, you’d better hang it up. Japan’s most popular hero is ready to battle greedy ogres, packing a peach powered punch. Bethesda’s got him and he will win the day with a resounding “Ka-ra-choom!”

Bringing together a popular folk tale with cartoon-style action, Anime Momotaro is pure theatrical magic. As performed at Imagination Stage, Anime Momotaro is a no-holds-barred, thrill ride of a show that will have audience members of any age shouting “Banzai!”

(l-r) Tia Shearer as Old Woman, Jacob Yeh as Momotaro, and Phillip Reid as Old Man. (Photo: Margot Schulman)

(l-r) Tia Shearer as Old Woman, Jacob Yeh as Momotaro, and Phillip Reid as Old Man. (Photo: Margot Schulman)

The ancient and beloved tale of the boy born from a peach, Momotaro has delighted Japanese children for hundreds of years. Japan is also known for their distinctive form of animation, anime, a staple of Saturday morning entertainment for decades. Colorful characters take on all manners of beasts and monsters in series such as “Pokémon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh.” In anime (and the print form, manga), the graphics pop with vivid color, and the actions and expressions are often exaggerated.

Now, put that cartoon style in the hands of a gifted ensemble of actors and a production that crackles with creativity: that’s Anime Momotaro. This production gives the gift of pure theatre, where imagination and whimsy take center stage from start to finish.

Beginning with a brief lesson in Japanese stagecraft, the audience is introduced to the kokens. When Ryan Sellers, the head koken, stealthily entered, clad all in black, one youngster blurted out, “Mommy, it’s a ninja!” Indeed, the kokens are theatrical ninjas, invisible to the other actors, who serve as puppeteers and stage hands throughout the performance.

Other Japanese theatre conventions, such as Bunraku puppetry, as well as techniques borrowed from Kabuki and Noh are utilized as well. But don’t think you have to be an expert in Asian theatre to enjoy the show. As orchestrated by director Eric Johnson and co-creator Alvin Chan, Anime Momotaro brilliantly brings together the story, theatre magic and the cartoon style to transport the audience to a vibrant world where anything is possible and even the bud guys are likeable.

(l-r) Tia Shearer as Nakamon, Rafael Untalan as Daimon, Jacob Yeh as Momotaro, Phillip Reid as Monmon.(Photo: Margot Schulman)

(l-r) Tia Shearer as Nakamon, Rafael Untalan as Daimon, Jacob Yeh as Momotaro, Phillip Reid as Monmon.(Photo: Margot Schulman)

Like all good cartoons, the play begins with a catchy theme song, “Momotaro-san,” borrowed from the Japanese nursery rhyme. If you see the show, prepare to live with this song for a long, long time – and that’s a good thing, in this case.

The story is adapted and embellished from the original: a childless, elderly couple wishes for a child. They discover a giant peach which yields a handsome baby boy they call Momotaro. As Momotaro grows up, he wants to help protect his family from the ogres who have been terrorizing them for years, stealing their vegetables and kibidango (millet dumplings). Along his route to fight the ogres, he is befriended by a rag-tag menagerie – Inu, the dog; Kiji the bird; and Saru the monkey. Together they cross the ocean to Ogre Island to battle the monsters, and discover the true power of inner strength.

Scenic designer Natsu Onoda Power has transformed Imagination Stage into a peaceful Japanese garden house, with sliding panels, surrounded by bubbles. Aided by Zachery Gilbert’s vivacious lighting, the garden setting transforms into a riverbank, a mountain top, or Ogre Island in a flash. The costumes, seemingly peeled from animation cells, are appropriately over-the-top, thanks to Debra Kim Sivigny’s eye for detail and anime style.

Within this living anime world, the actors are the icing on the rice cake. In the title role, Jacob Yeh leads the performers as the heroic and charming Momotaro. From his first moments, smiling and posing during the Momotaro-San theme song, Yeh’s smile and stage presence fits perfectly with his character’s journey.

Highly Recommended
Anime Momotaro
Closes March 10, 2013
Imagination Stage
4908 Auburn Avenue
Bethesda, MD
Tickets: $12 – $25 or call 301-280-1660
Saturdays, Sundays and several other performances
Details
Tickets
Not to be outdone by Yeh, the supporting players are equal to the challenge of maintaining the cartoon spirit of the production. All the actors are focused on the same goal: tell the story of Momotaro and his quest to protect his family from the bullying ogres. There is no pandering or shameless mugging at play here: just five actors serving up a delightful show.

Playing multiple roles, Phillip Reid (Old Man, Inu the dog and Monmon the orge), Tia Shearer (Old woman, Kiji the bird and the ogre Nakoman), and Rafael Untalan (Daimon the ogre and Saru the monkey) create vivid characters that are easy to follow and easy to love, even as stage-stomping ogres. Ryan Sellers, as the inscrutable kokken, is essential to the magical moments where stones are thrown and crack in two, rivers flow from multiple angles and comic book-style battles ensue.

Last week, when the nominations for Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards for 2013 were announced, Imagination Stage received ten nominations. Among those, five were for their production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Having seen Anime Momotaro, I fully expect Imagination Stage will be remembered by the Helen Hayes judges next year, too.

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Anime Momotaro was adapted from the traditional Japanese folktale by Alvin Chan, Eric Johnson, and Honolulu Theatre for Youth.  Featuring Jacob Yeh, Phil Reid, Tia Shearer, Rafael Untalan, Ryan Sellers. Production: Set Designer: Natsu Onoda Power, Costume Designer: Deb Svigny, and Lighting Designer Zac Gilbert. Produced by Imagination Stage . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.

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Other reviews

Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Jane Horwitz . Washington Post
Jamie Davis Smith . HuffingtonPost
Amy Alipio . OurKids
Julia L. Exline . DCMetroTheaterArts

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