The latest installment in the series of Works & Process at the Guggenheim is the delightful Third Bird, an original work by fashion designer and artist Isaac Mizrahi (libretto), Nico Muhly (music), and John Heginbotham (choreography). During the pandemic, Works & Process commissioned the piece, which was developed in a bubble residency at Catskill Mountain Foundation in spring 2021. Mizrahi also narrates and directs the children’s show, inspired by his love of, and conceived as a companion to, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 symphonic fairytale Peter & the Wolf, which has been presented by Works & Process since 2007, for more than 100 sold-out performances that he also directed and narrated.
With a full Moon (played by Heginbotham) seen behind the silhouetted NYC skyline and before the changing colors of the sky (lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker), a variety of creatures – human, avian, and feline – converge on Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. The people (Derrick Arthur as the Ornithologist, Macy Sullivan as the Zookeeper, and Norton Owen as the Grandfather) have come, respectively, in search of the birds to be studied (Christine Flores as the Bluebird and Marjorie Folkman as the Duck – who was eaten by the wolf in Prokofiev’s story, but, in Mizrahi’s upbeat sequel, was only swallowed then spit out whole), the escaped ostrich that must be captured and returned to the menagerie (Brian Lawson as the titular “Third Bird”), and the hungry pet that got out to hunt for more food (Lindsey Jones as the Cat).
As with Prokofiev, Muhly’s evocative score, played by Ensemble Signal and conducted by Georgia M. Mills, highlights the individuality of the cast of characters – each introduced to the audience by Mizrahi and represented musically by a different instrument corresponding to the unique sounds of their voices. Similarly, the choreography references the distinctive movements of the varied species, and the featured dancers embody their qualities to perfection. Flores is balletic and graceful as the wide-winged Bird, Folkman is awkward and floppy as the big-footed Duck, Jones is consummately agile as the lithe-limbed Cat, and Lawson delivers just the right staccato head turns of the long-necked Ostrich.
And just as the people do with their characteristic dress and equipment (the Ornithologist with binoculars, the Zookeeper with a net, the Grandfather with a walking stick), the anthropomorphized creatures, in costumes by Mizrahi that combine the casual clothing we all wear with feathers, wings, beaks, and tails (with Marla Wonboy serving as assistant costume designer), display their specific personalities and signature skills. The Bluebird flies, the Duck swims, the Ostrich runs, and the Cat stalks. Each is shown doing what it does best, even if it’s not what the others do – and that’s precisely the point of this entertaining and uplifting tale. “Not all birds are alike,” so be who you are, accept others for what they are, and live together in harmony.
Though based on a children’s fairytale, the quality of the music and dance, the cleverness of the characterizations and costumes, and the importance of the message make Third Bird a treat for kids and grown-ups alike (as was the case at the performance I attended, where adults comprised the majority of the audience). Whatever your age, you’re guaranteed to be charmed!
Running Time: Approximately 30 minutes, without intermission.
Third Bird plays through Sunday, June 5, 2022, at Works & Process at the Guggenheim, Peter B. Lewis Theater, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, NYC. For tickets (priced at $10-35), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a valid photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.