I've enjoyed many shows at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre over the years, but "The Great Pretender," making its world premiere with TheatreWorks, took me by surprise and may just be my favorite yet.
"The Great Pretender" brings audiences behind the scenes at a long-running children's television show (think "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Sesame Street" and "Lamb Chop's Play-Along"). Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) is the kindly host, who talks directly to his young viewers, teaches them crafts, songs and lessons, and banters with his sassy puppet sidekicks, including Carol the Pony and Pudge the Pig. The show is on hiatus, its future in question, after the tragic death of Marilyn, the lead puppeteer and Roy Felt's wife. Co-star Carol (Suzanne Grodner) wants to carry on without her, while genial director Tom (Michael Storm) proposes replacing her with Jodi (Sarah Moser), a lifelong Mr. Felt super-fan with uncanny vocal imitation skills.
Roy, still reeling from his personal and professional loss, isn't sure what to think, but Jodi soon wins him over with her enthusiasm, talent and awkward charm. As Jodi attempts to fit in among her childhood idols, Roy is forced to confront his unresolved grief. For Roy, the line between Marilyn and her character became blurred after years of togetherness, and his chemistry with someone new proves unnerving. Ultimately, Roy has to decide between holding on and letting go.
Part of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival last year, "The Great Pretender" was penned by Canadian David West Read. No doubt much of its success is due to his sharp writing. Deftly directed by Stephen Brackett, the show also features a few convincing original songs by Read, presented alongside pleasant piano and ukulele renditions of Beatles tunes. The adorably retro set was designed by Daniel Zimmerman, and wonderful puppet creations are by David Valentine.
Kudos to the cast, and especially to Moser, Brady and Grodner for their expressive work with the puppets. Brady strikes all the right notes as Roy, both in his saintly TV incarnation and as the real man off screen. Moser gives oddball Jodi an effective mix of goofiness and vulnerability that saves her from becoming an ingénue/"quirky girl" cliché; Grodner steals scenes as abrasive, manic Carol. It took me a while to warm up to the character, but she won me over with her brilliantly impassioned pitch for a movie about a baseball-playing feline.
Roy's at his best when interacting with the puppets as his television persona and finds real life more difficult to navigate. So too the play's strongest moments come when depicting episodes of the TV show. I could have done with a bit more of that and a bit less of Carol/Tom dialogue, but as it is we get a sense of why legions of fans like Jodi would grow up taking comfort in Mr. Felt's cozy, but fictional, world.
It would be easy for the show to veer too far into cheesy, saccharine territory, or to get mean-spirited and mocking, but instead it strikes just the right warmhearted tone. If you, like me, could never quite get used to Kermit the Frog's "new" voice, it may make you wax nostalgic about your own childhood favorites -- and perhaps consider them in a new light. And no spoilers, but anyone not left with a lump in his or her throat after the final scene must be made of stone. "The Great Pretender" is a genuine gem.
What: "The Great Pretender," by David West Read, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: The show runs through Aug. 3. Evening performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. No evening performance on Aug. 3. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and on Wednesday, July 30. No matinee performance on Aug. 2; no performances on July 29. Audio-described performances for blind and visually impaired audiences on Aug. 1-3; post-show discussions on Wednesdays.
Cost: Tickets are $25-$74.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.