Review: ‘Gruff!’ at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre

Part of the first Summer Family Theater Festival at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, Gruff!, a co-presentation by Vital Theatre Company and Doppelskope, is everything that great children’s theater should be. The ecologically-conscious musical fairytale, with concept and text by Ora Fruchter and Christopher Scheer and music by Toby Singer, is entertaining, engaging, and educational, in its delightful interactive delivery of an important message about the urgent need to save our planet by preserving and protecting the environment. Along with that is the unspoken goal of getting kids excited about going to the theater from an early age. Message received and mission accomplished!

Emily Marsh and Aquafer (Jacob Graham). Photo by Sunpro, Inc.
Emily Marsh and Aquafer (Jacob Graham). Photo by Sunpro, Inc.

The captivating production, directed by Fruchter, opens with a friendly warm-up to get the young theater-goers involved, and runs for just about an hour – a perfect length to hold the their attention and to maintain their oral participation (providing cued sound effects and answering questions posed by the cast) till the very end. Combining direct-address storytelling with physical comedy, high-energy song and dance, and magical laser juggling by an ensemble of actors playing anthropomorphic goats (in clever costumes by Lex Gurst) and working colorful muppets of lovable trolls, the show is at once smart and silly, with humor that will get even the adults laughing and heeding the warning about our endangered planet.

Set in the future of a dying world that once flourished, three vibrant young goats named Gruf (Emily Marsh), Grif (Allison Frasca), and Clancy (Dominic Russo) hear the story of how things used to be from their teacher (“What’s grass?,” the inquisitive Clancy asks repeatedly), who informs them that there’s nothing left to eat and sends them out to forage for food in the barren land. The young Gruf happens upon fertile Troll Valley, the only place left where plants still grow, animals roam, and birds fly. Unlike the history she was taught in school, she hears from Aquafer, a cute fuzzy troll she befriends (voiced and puppeteered by Jacob Graham), that it was in fact the goats who destroyed everything, that trolls aren’t scary, and they don’t eat goats (“We’re vegetarians!”). She resolves to enlist the aid of the other goats to help the trolls plant seeds and make the world green again. But her elders Frick (also played by Graham), Frack (Rowan Magee), and Mavis (Ashley Nease) have different ideas; they want to continue drilling for oil, constructing buildings, and depleting the land. So it’s the old goats versus the kids in their struggle to replenish the earth and to fight against the “progress” of the preceding generation.

Allison Frasca, Dominic Russo, and Emily Marsh. Photo by Sunpro, Inc.

The entire cast is irresistible, the music direction by Singer and choreography by Frasca and Hollybeth Gourlay are exuberant, and the artistic design, using found objects and recycled materials, fully supports the theme of ecology. Along with the trash bags and folding backdrop panels of detritus in the goats’ junkyard and flowers and greenery in Troll Valley (scenic design by Hannah Cook), video projections (by Graham) of landscapes (projection background art by Asher Rogers) and shadow puppets that traverse the mountains, water, sky, and bridges create a contrasting sense of what the world was and is, what it could be and should be.

Gruff! is guaranteed to keep children (and adults) spellbound and to remind all ages to stop polluting our clean air and destroying our green Earth. If goats and trolls can do it, so can we!

Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.

Emily Marsh and Allison Frasca. Photo by Eric Michael Pearson.

Gruff! plays through Sunday, August 27, 2017, at Vital Theatre Company and Doppelskope, performing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre – 2162 Broadway, 4th floor, NYC. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 579-0528, or purchase them online.

Trailer from a previous production, June 2017.


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