Nearly 73 years ago, a little-known tragedy about World War II called “Operation Tiger” cost the lives of roughly 946 American servicemen in what was only supposed to a rehearsal for the D-Day invasion of Normandy that would come weeks later. Because the little coastal town of Slapton Sands in England was topographically reminiscent of the beaches of Normandy, the setting seemed right for a run-through. But with stubborn secrecy and a dearth of communication, not to mention surprise Nazi ships, the Americans came under fire from not only the enemy, but from British ships that were supposed to be spotting them.
The Kneehigh production (in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre & Berkeley Repertory Theatre) of “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” which is produced by Artistic Director Paul Crewes, based on the 2005 book (of the same name) by Michael Morpurgo, and directed by Emma Rice, mixes this piece of horrific World War II history with the comforting tonic of fiction. The musical, which is scheduled to play at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through March 5th, tells an important story in a fashion that is representative of a sumptuous stage showcase. With a cast of only 12, every aspect relating to performance is highlighted with versatile flair, whether it be dramatic acting, accents, comedy, singing, instrumentals, puppetry, or dance. Certainly, the production goes the extra distance, compared to its musical peers, by expertly utilizing its performers – many of whom play myriad parts, instruments, and even act as puppeteers.
It is exhaustingly fulfilling for the audience to see the performers expend as much energy as they do once the “present-day” gives way to a flashback of nearly three-quarters of a century prior, anchored by an idiosyncratic, hyperactive 12-year-old, as well as her cat, mother, grandfather, French teacher, classmates, and an evacuee, all of whom befriend two visiting black U.S. Army soldiers. These proceedings transpire on an amazing set sewn out of a dream, with its band, led by Blues Man Akpore Uzoh, above the stage, which is hinged by a wing propeller in the middle, and joined by a red tractor, sand bags, and aluminum tubs of water arrayed downstage facing the audience.
Katy Owen, who personifies the role of 12-year-old Lily Tregenza, is wondrously memorable in the manner in which she has crafted a character so rife with zest and peculiarities that jump out at the observer. While her character’s skipping, volume-spiked shouts, and hip-swaying obliviousness take a little time to get used to, Owen’s portrayal grows on us insofar that we are proud to “get her,” and are thus pleased with our recognition of a brilliant performance. Tregenza’s interaction with her environment, including Tips the cat (puppeteered mainly by Nandi Bhebhe) comes across as innocently sweet, oftentimes very funny, though Owens makes sure when to punctuate her character’s moments with despondency that pulls the heartstrings.
Tregenza’s love interest is evacuee Barry Turner, portrayed with a delightfully nerdy naiveté by Adam Sopp, who also plays the drums and spoons (as a percussion instrument). Turner is emotionally besieged by the loss of his father, though he is remarkably persistent in trying to win over Tregenza, which culminates in the most uncomfortably hysterical first kiss thanks to Sopp and Owen’s stage chemistry.
Ncuti Gatwa (Adolphus) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry) play the incredibly energetic U.S. Army soldiers who hang around Slapton Sands before the debacle of “Operation Tiger.” The two seem to never tire, as they defy gravity with spins, jumps, and an overall resounding choreography (by Emma Rice and Etta Murfitt) which complements their stage presence as actors who bring a well-manifested solemnity. One example of this is Bhebhe’s poignant vocal performance at the end that is accented by her appropriately tragic body language. And during the show’s lighter moments, Gatwa infuses Adolphus with just the right amount of straight-faced discipline that evokes many laughs during charmingly awkward interactions with Lily Tregenza (Owen) and her doting mom – expressed with infectious cheerfulness by the talented Kyla Goodey.
Suffice it to say, the show is full of creative and eccentric humor – the credit for much of which goes to the actors whose timing give the spoken words and visuals merit. Craig Johnson, for instance, brings three characters to life – each one being more absurdly hilarious than the last. After his “Winston Churchill” wins in an amusing duel against Hitler, he gallops across the stage on his invisible horse as Lord Something-or-Other to warn the denizens of Slapton Sands to evacuate ahead of “Operation Tiger.” This is preceded by Johnson’s Mrs. Turner, a drag role that presumptively elevates the scene it occupies to become a highlight of Act II, underscored by an accordion serenade atop a table, beer bottles being used as tuneful recorders, and kick-stepping group fun for the triumphant finish.
Likewise, Mike Shepherd also portrays a drag character (much older Lily Tregenza), and imbues it with a suitable strangeness and outlandishness that is emblematic of the Tregenza character. Moreover, Shepherd demonstrates his acting range by also emoting Grandfather Tregenza with an almost lonely earnestness that soberingly relates to the blue-collar struggles that many can identify with.
Rounding out the cast are Akpore Uzoh, who as the Blues Man and older Adolphus, exhibits smooth Motown-esque vocals, and an ability to command full attention when speaking; Emma Darlow, who beautifully plays the violin, and portrays the clumsy, but genuine, French teacher Madame Bounine; and, Chris Jared, who belts out impressive notes on his saxophone, and plays Lily’s (deceased) husband, Vicar, and Lily’s dad – the latter two with especially powerful resolve.
Overall, with a myriad of moving elements, parts, and roles shared by the cast-members, all of whom contribute in endlessly artful ways, “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” thrives by virtue of its direction by Director Emma Rice, who has found a way to take Michael Morpurgo’s story and tell a historical atrocity through a uniquely indelible presentation. This is a particularly splendid feat given that the production features just the right amount of blended drama and comedy to create a recipe that is stitched into the same thematic tapestry, never making the audience feel cheated of something more authentic. The show is, as a whole, undeniably faithful to the spectrum of emotions it elicits.
For more information about “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” and future shows at The Wallis, please visit thewallis.org
For more information about Kneehigh Productions, visit kneehigh.co.uk