Puppets in Review- Howie Leifer

Homesick Sailor Puppet Theater- Songs and Stories of the Sea

South Street Seaport Museum, New York, NY
April 7, 2002

review by Donald Devet

Howie Leifer focuses his entire show on life at sea as told through the oral tradition of chanteys.

Howie Leifer has found his nautical niche. Using a variety of puppet styles– shadow, humanette, rod, and Sicilian rod – Leifer focuses his entire show on life at sea as told through the oral tradition of chanteys. Whether it’s a sinking ship, a golden-haired mermaid or a sail in need of hoisting, there’s a chantey to fit the occasion. Chanteys were first sung by sailors to help pass the monotonous days at sea or to lighten the drudgery of routine work aboard ship. Over the years verses were added to lengthen the songs to fit the job at hand. Today, because of these multiple verses and the hypnotic repetition of the chorus, sea chanteys make great drinking songs for adults and ideal sing-a-longs for children. Even if you don’t know the verses or are too tipsy to remember them, you can always chime in on the chorus.

Leifer’s show straddles the boom when it comes to catering to children and adults. The adults seem to enjoy the festivities as much as the children at the performance I saw, which was part of a larger series called the New York Packets’ Sea Music Series sponsored by the South Street Seaport Museum. Everyone was singing and clapping to a dozen or more tunes. Not only does Leifer sing but he also accompanies himself on ukelele and concertina. (How often do you hear someone play a squeezebox these days?) And what’s more, he can do all of this while his face is covered with a humanette mask or with his head buried under a hood.

The title of the show, “Songs and Stories of the Sea,” is a misnomer. The show is actually many songs and few stories. There was only one story told without music– Leifer’s newest addition to the program. A Sicilian rod puppet fisherman which he built last summer at a workshop in Prague, attempts to catch a fish. Except it turns out the fish and all his silvery buddy fish would rather play peek-a-boo than get hooked. Leifer could have varied the show’s tempo with a few more non-musical skits like this one.

Although beautifully designed, a David Bowie rod character who suddenly appears in the middle of these saltwater shenanigans was incongruous. How he got on board this show is a mystery. Maybe it has something to do with his name– Bowie (buoy)? But no matter. As Leifer says about “Songs and Stories of the Sea,” “Any excuse to play the concertina is a good idea.” His show is more than “a good idea.” It’s charming and witty and full of Leifer.

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