The work of Daniel Handler, more popularly known as Lemony Snicket, is a welcome rebuke to any sap who believes that children deserve constant coddling. Kids know when they're the target of condescension. They're neither as fearful nor as slow-witted as many adults seem to imagine. And they're not so fragile as to require constant protection from the simple fact of death.
Even so, no one quite predicted the outrageous success of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Handler's primly morbid series of 13 children's books about a trio of orphans who endure the murderous attentions of their distant cousin Count Olaf. The books are dark and witty enough to place Handler in the company of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, and so popular that Hollywood saw fit to botch a major film adaptation.
Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead should burnish his credentials as a stalwart of sophisticated entertainment for kids. Originally created as an orchestral composition with music by Nathaniel Stookey and narration by Handler, the piece made its first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony in 2006, eventually finding its way to symphonies all over North America. Now Handler and Stookey — working closely with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, Broadway veteran Geoff Hoyle, and New York-based puppeteers Phantom Limb — have expanded that 30-minute orchestral piece into a one-hour theatrical event. The result is a stage spectacle now making its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, and as spectacles go, it's pretty friggin' spectacular.
The play's goal is to teach children about the orchestra in a way similar to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals, and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. The key difference here is that The Composer Is Dead is actually entertaining. (Anyone forced to listen to Peter and the Wolf as a kid, or even watch Walt Disney's 1946 animated short, would be hard-pressed to call the experience a high point of childhood.)
Hoyle, who originated the role of Zazu in the original Broadway production of The Lion King, plays two distinct roles here. In the show's first half, he's Your Charming Host, a smarmy showman tasked with showing us "the magic of living, breathing theater." In order to do that, he introduces a short film featuring Phantom Limb's ingenious puppets, each one explaining how he or she plays a key role in the theatrical process as actor, director, stage manager, and so on. (The fact that we're watching a film extolling the magic of theater is an irony lost on no one; I'm willing to call it one of the show's many perverse jokes.) Hoyle serves as a mediator between film and stage, standing next to the screen and interacting with the movie before being sucked into the movie himself. In both style and tone, this opening segment is reminiscent of the early Muppets — it's a model of zany wit, operating at a level just shy of manic.
Around the 30-minute mark, unsettling thoughts may find their way into your head — for instance, "Did I really pay theatrical ticket prices to watch a movie with my kids?" — and that's just when the show executes a major shift. The curtain finally rises on Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko's gorgeous set, a giant version of a Victorian toy theater, with a pit full of puppets representing each section of a full orchestra. (On opening night, this big reveal produced an audible gasp from the mostly adult audience.) Hoyle is now the Inspector, called in to investigate the mysterious death of "the world's greatest composer." He interrogates each section of the orchestra to discover the instruments' personalities and resentments, hoping to discover a motive for killing off the guy who writes their music.
It's basically a whodunit, though you won't be blamed for showing no interest in whoever did the deed — Handler himself doesn't seem particularly concerned with creating a tight story. He's more interested in the play of language than the mechanics of plot. As one character puts it, "clever writing and cheap wordplay are the same thing," which is both a mischievous indictment of the entire show and a good enough reason for simply enjoying it on its own blithe terms. (My hastily scrawled notes, always borderline-illegible because I'm trying to write them in the darkness, include the phrase "very clever" no fewer than five times.)
A kids' show can only be called a complete success if it manages to entertain the adults who inevitably serve as chaperones. On that score, The Composer Is Dead is completely successful, combining visual panache with intelligent verbal humor in a way that will charm just about anybody right out of their pants. (I brought along a 30-year-old friend gripped in the final throes of Ph.D. work in medieval literature — an experience that, from what I can gather, is enough to destroy anyone's sense of humor — and she had difficulty containing her total delight at show's end.) If you happen to have any sharp, imaginative children lying around the house, or maybe a couple of precocious nieces on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, or maybe just a friend who could use a macabre kick this holiday season, take any and all to see The Composer Is Dead. Just be warned that, once they've seen it, they'll always be a little spoiled: you'll never get them to listen to Peter and the Wolf ever again.