Puppets in Review- Song of Six Pence

Liz Joyce- Sing a Song of Sixpence

Carriage House/Henson Annex, New York, NY
April 5, 2001

review by Donald Devet

Liz Joyce has struck a delicate balance between two worlds—our hip 21st century know-it-all cynicism and the sepia-toned time-gone-by of our grandparents.

In the summer of 1998, Liz Joyce was at a rummage sale at Frankfort High School in northern Michigan where she came across the complete score for a little known musical, “Song of Sixpence,” written by Arthur A. Penn in 1925. Joyce had never heard of the author or of the piece. But once she saw it, she knew she had to have it. And the price was right—10 cents. Now, three years later, this obscure and long forgotten 72-year-old musical play returns to the stage as a puppet show.

Joyce has made some interesting choices in rejuvenating this relic. First, she has decided to give equal weight to the puppetry and to herself as an actor by portraying various characters. Dressed as a French maid a la fish net stockings and white elbow length evening gloves, Joyce enters the stage pushing an elaborate pastry cart which morphs into a revolving toy theater. With just a few props—glasses, hat — Joyce also transforms herself into various characters—chef, narrator and mourner. Her grace and charm along with her excellent singing abilities make what might have been an old-fashioned piece of fluff a solid piece of theater well worth watching and listening to.

And second, Joyce’s choice of puppet style fits the play to perfection. As in her adaptation of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” she uses rods and strings to control the miniature basswood carved figures. These puppets are full of character—a plump King, a heavy-footed hunter and a pie full of beady-eyed black birds (not quite four and twenty, but enough). Tim LaGasse is credited with being the Pie Technician who devised and constructed the mechanics that allow the birds’ heads to bob in and out of the piecrust. James DeMartis was TeaCart Engineer as well as the creator of the King’s cutlery.

Another choice to be applauded is Joyce’s decision to use live musical accompaniment. Steven Widerman, founder and owner of his own puppet company (The Puppet Company) plays the piano-transposed score as well as providing a strong singing voice for several characters. Live music in puppet shows is a rarity—usually cost prohibitive. So it comes as a welcomed surprise when it’s encountered. Steven donned in a black on black tux does an admirable job harmonizing and giving vocal weight throughout.

But what is most impressive is Joyce’s restraint of tone. It would be all too easy to mock or satirize the genre of light musicals. Listening to this score is tantamount to being immersed in a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald operetta; the inclination is to laugh. But the libretto is delivered with such sincerity and bravado, you can only sit back and let its wide-eyed freshness wash over you. Yet at the same time there’s an unspoken edge of sauciness here. Maybe it’s Joyce’s short-skirted costume or her pregnant pauses. Whatever it is, Joyce has struck a delicate balance between two worlds—our hip 21st century know-it-all cynicism and the sepia-toned time-gone-by of our grandparents.

My only concern is– where on earth could this exquisite little musical be booked? The scale of the puppets is too small for an auditorium of school children. It might work as a library show. But how many libraries have pianos or are willing to rent one? Would it play for very young children with limited attention spans? How about an adult party? Joyce has created a gem of a show but she may have problems finding a fitting venue to exhibit her talents. All concerns aside, I’m confident that wherever the show ends up it will be received with enthusiasm. Joyce has shown she is a serious puppeteer who can handle the lightest of souffles and turn it into the heartiest of meals.

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