It's unlikely that theatergoers -- regardless of their age -- will forget the time they spend with the family-friendly opera Puss in Boots, (El gato con botas), now playing at the New Victory Theatre. The production -- directed by Moisés Kaufman and featuring puppetry direction by Mark Down, with music by Xavier Montsalvatge and a libretto in English by Nestor Lujan -- is a dazzling visual feast from start to finish.
The piece faithfully follows the story of the titular feline (a role sung by Leah Wool and brought to life by three puppeteers manipulating a terrific human-size Bunraku puppet) who gains fame and fortune for a Miller (Steven LaBrie) in order to escape death. The cat's only request for his services (which incidentally stop the Miller from killing the animal) is that he be outfitted with a splendid hat, cape, sword and, of course, a pair of boots.
From the instant Puss has taken to the stage, greeting the conductor and fancifully bounding about the stage, audiences are charmed. But once his adventures have begun, the inspired whimsicality of the creative team skyrockets. A sextet of rabbits that Puss captures for a King (Peter Castaldi) and his princess daughter (Valerie Ogbonnaya) on behalf of his master, whom the cat says is a Marquis, seem to have gymnastic abilities that would rival Cirque du Soleil acrobats thanks to the astute handling of the puppeteers. In order to introduce the Miller and princess, Puss suggests his master fake a drowning as the royals pass by in a boat, and in this sequence mini-versions of the actors are used to hysterical effect.
The pièce de résistance of the show, however, is the sequence that involves a drunken Ogre (sung by David Salsbery Fry) whom Puss dupes. The monster is brought to life by six puppeteers manipulating components of its body (head, torso, arms and legs), which the puppeteers wittily and surreally rearrange during the creature's paean to alcohol. At times, it almost looks as if a Picasso has sprung to life on the stage as legs shift above the beast's head and arms descend to below its midsection. And when Puss challenges the Ogre about its ability to turn itself into animals, Kaufman and Down, with the able assistance of lighting designer David Lander, achieve some truly breathtaking effects.
The principals' unamplified vocals are lush and powerful, but one wishes they were in the service of better material: Lujan's pedestrian libretto and Monstsalvatge's music for mostly recitative sections are unremarkable. However, there are several sumptuous orchestral sections, including the underscoring for the underwater interlude that precedes the Miller's "drowning" and the Ogre's various transformations.