What do you get when you cross three bears, reportedly kicked out on their hinies from the Kennedy Center, with an Animal Control cop from Fairfax County, whose dream is to feature his golden corkscrew curls in a Breck commercial? A bodacious, bureaucratic-bashing, barely believable but baringly Bear-way show.
It’s a somewhat goofy premise but one that provides an opportunity for some great fun and mirthful entertainment.
There’s a lot of talent gathered here, starting with the wit of writer Mario Baldessari and his collaboration with co-playwright and composer Ethan Slater. Their script is crammed with a lot of references about the genre of musical theatre, Washington’s theatre scene, and the life of an actor as a pawn in the game of fame. At one point, we get the report that the Bears, while at the Kennedy Center, had eaten the President of the Helen Hayes Awards when she was sitting in the audience. I have to wonder while I was chortling if all this self-referential material didn’t zipline over the heads of the designated audience, mostly under the age of eight.
The creative team is ably supported by three singing actors, who play Leader Bear (Joshua Dick), Sidekick Bear (Tyler Herman), and Clumsy Bear (Leigh Taylor Patton). The furry creatures interacted with the young audience members at pre-show doing what bears do best, sitting and swiping at food snacks being thrown their way, or snoring. (I was reminded of the many times I have stood outside the panda house at the National Zoo watching the star beasties there do just that.) When the show came to life, all bears jumped to, singing and dancing with a great deal of verve. They were soon joined by Gannon O’Brien playing Sergeant Dr. Benjamin Frathmore-Lockingston-Fyfe. He is one of the whackiest characters I have seen in any show, someone who sports more badges and pockets than any Eagle Scout, then goes on to reveal a head of yellow curls coifed like Shirley Temple. At this point, I was sitting up tall; this could be fun.
The set by Steven Royal for the alternating production of Almost, Maine, also set up some great expectations. Entering the space was an invitation to a land of magic. Miniature houses and trees were suspended upside down from the ceiling, seemingly floating on heavenly ice flows. Below, the stage floor represented a glassy round pond of ice covered in a mist of snowflakes. Where were we going to find ourselves, I wondered. The kids around me were as enthralled as I.
Baldessari has cast himself as the janitor in the theatre that has been taken over by bears. He is a winsome sadsack in the mold of silent screen clown Buster Keaton. He has a dream of singing and acting in a musical. The marauding bears, it turns out, offer him a way to bear stardom, and he wants his chance. When Animal Control Officer (O’Brien) enters with his own ambition to become the hero that rids Fairfax County of unwanted critters (and the list goes on,) all are in agreement that bears might be big business.
So what went haywire and kept the show from fully gelling? It might be that the creative team was having way too much fun. It might be that somewhere in all the fun, two things got missed: variety of musical material and a focused dramatic throughline.
The decision to make the entire show a cappella didn’t support the performers adequately and disabled them from creating a lushness of sound. Composer Ethan Slater’s choice to restrict the music material chiefly to upbeat barber shop quartet didn’t offer enough variation of style and tempi. (For instance, it sure would have been swell to have Patton as Clumsy Bear, who had a special sweet voice and relationship with the young audience, share a lovely ballad.)
As for the drama, we keep getting the set up but no conflict development. The janitor keeps trying to join in the performance. Animal Control keeps looking for bears, but though they’re frolicking right in front of him he doesn’t see them for most of the show. Finally, the Bears keep telling us they are going to give us the real Goldilocks story from the bears’ perspective, but they never do. Instead, the characters throw themselves into a song about “Goldi” getting rich, and it’s suddenly over. The audience, adults and children, sit baffled, unaware that the play has ended. We have to be told our Bear friends are out in the lobby and ready to sign autographs.
I don’t mean to growl, but there’s some good stuff here, and maybe, Bears and company, it’s just a question of trying things out more to find what feels “just right.”
Recommended with reservations
Running Time: 45 minutes