Stage & Dance

Review: Lexington Children's Theatre's delightful 'Shimmering Sky' is circus of a show

Michael Whitten, left, Ashley Isenhower and Jim Short star in Tales of the Shimmering Sky at the Lexington Children's Theatre. The play, by Casey Sams, is based on three folktales, each from a different culture, about some aspect of the sky.
Michael Whitten, left, Ashley Isenhower and Jim Short star in Tales of the Shimmering Sky at the Lexington Children's Theatre. The play, by Casey Sams, is based on three folktales, each from a different culture, about some aspect of the sky. Lexington Herald-Leader

Why is the sky blue? Why do the sun and the moon hang in the sky?

These are the kind of questions that parents attempt to answer when children become inquisitive about the nature of the world and the universe.

Modern parents can answer these questions with science, but ancient cultures answered them with mythology and folk tales, many of which also imparted moral lessons.

So it is in Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, the delightful, educational and cute Tales of the Shimmering Sky.

Adapted by Casey Sams from the book by Susan Milford, Tales of the Shimmering Sky features three stories from Native American, Japanese, and African cultures.

Director Larry Snipes thematically unites the tales by setting them in a circus environment, a creative solution to the problem of presenting three short vignettes from various parts of the world.

Snipes circus theme works beautifully for two reasons.

One, the convention of a circus — punctuated by zany and colorful costuming by Eric Abele and a red-and-white striped big-top scenic design by Jerome Wills— forms the "glue" of the production and sets the tone for short, fantastical jaunts into other worlds and times.

The second, and perhaps most rewarding, benefit is that it allows the show's three performers to really clown around, polishing their physical comedy skills while engaging the young audience in fun, interactive moments. Children get to make the sound of rain and even pretend to be fleas, tickling and itching a stubborn sun and moon, siblings who refuse to shine in the play's first vignette, "Sister Sun and Brother Moon."

Ashley Isenhower and Jim Short put gnarly spins on their celestial characters in this Native American tale from what is now Northern California. The duo — and Michael Whitten, who plays a gopher, a snake and an owl in the tale — deserve praise for their characterizations, which are as accomplished as they are fun.

Between each tale are interludes when the performers transfer to clown characters, providing humorous transitions between each piece.

Real-life clowns I have seen have been only debatably funny, but Isenhower, Short and Whitten really know how to get a young crowd laughing. The Tuesday morning school performance that I saw began with a quiet group of youngsters ("Our lips are together," a teacher whispered at curtain) and ended with a riotous theater full of squeals.

Short's final character, African god Mkunga Mburu, is partly responsible for the thunderous squealing, because he rode around on a bull and squirted water at the audience. Short specialized in physical movement at Rhodes College and studied Commedia dell'Arte in Italy, according to program notes, so it is a treat to watch him flex those performance muscles.

He and his cast mates play about 14 characters, not counting the clowns who host the circus, in about 35 minutes, which makes for a swift escape into other worlds and a fun excursion to the big top. All that's missing is popcorn and cotton candy.

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