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‘Elephant’ collaboration captivates all ages

The Chicago Children's Theatre presents dress rehearsal for 'The Elephant Whale' Tuesday April 8 2013 Ruth Page Center for Arts

The Chicago Children's Theatre presents a dress rehearsal for "The Elephant and the Whale" Tuesday, April 8, 2013, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1020 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.

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When: Through May 26

Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre and Redmoon at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $36 (adults);
$26 (children)

Info: (872) 222-9555; www.ChicagoChildrens

Run time: One hour, with no intermission

Updated: May 18, 2013 6:12AM

It makes perfect sense that the Chicago Children’s Theatre and Redmoon have forged a creative partnership for the world premiere production, “The Elephant and the Whale,” now at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

After all, both companies have a reputation for devising imaginative projects that take the most sophisticated approach to entertaining kids. And both make sure that the work they create is artful and sophisticated enough to fully enchant the adults who carry these “future audience members” into the theater.

As I watched “The Elephant and the Whale,” which features a story by that ever-quirky writer Seth Bockley (conceived in league with co-directors Frank Maugeri and Leslie B. Danzig), and the endlessly inventive visuals and engineering feats by that multimedia magician Maugeri, I did begin to worry that the whole thing might just be a bit over the heads of the tots of all ages in attendance. But then the cardboard tail of a very large sea creature moved into view and a wholly engaged little observer cried out, “It’s the whale!” And amid laughter from all corners of the house it became clear that everyone was safely on board for this voyage.

It all begins in 1919, as the long-established Hoogebeck Family traveling circus, hit by hard times and changing tastes, is forced to sell the business to the rich and hateful Quigley. The change of ownership is particularly hard on the Hoogebeck’s star act — a sweet, high-flying elephant named Ella, who is soon relegated to serving as Quigley’s “throne.” But Ella’s fate is not half as painful as that of the whale who is trapped as an “exhibit” inside a great tank when he should be swimming freely in the ocean. So it isn’t long before these two enormous creatures forge a bond of friendship and eventually embark on a grand escape that opens out into the even more mind-expanding cosmos.

This wide-ranging, poetic, hourlong story takes some time to gain momentum. But the visuals, both vintage and abstract, are captivating from the start in this production that creates a slew of miniature theaters (one, Victorian-style, featuring a wave machine), and also plays some cinematic tricks. The first theater seen is perched on a bicycle built for four, with the narrative unspooling like a scroll. Others open out from trunks and suitcases of many sizes. And along the way there are hand-help masks and stick puppets, as well as elaborate shadow play — devised by Andrea Everman and enhanced by video designer Liviu Pasare, along with a vast team of gifted artists and builders both onstage and behind the scenes.

Kevin O’Donnell’s score, including haunting songs for the whale, pours out of a three-horned gramophone contraption, with Kasey Foster as the voice of Ella and the principal singer among a wonderfully synchronized cast of four that also includes David Catlin as the Narrator, Kurt Brocker as Quigley and petite Becky Pool as the Whale. (Scale is a crucial element of this show.)

The production’s most thrilling sequence takes the form of a chase through urban landscapes and industrial wastelands. And wouldn’t you just guess it: The whale gets trapped in a moveable bridge that suggests Chicago more than a gateway to the Pacific.

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