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"Cricket' is a giant leap for theater

American Stage Children's Theater has made a quantum leap forward in quality with The Cricket in Times Square, a musical adaptation of George Selden's novel, now playing at Mahaffey Theater.

It is much better than last year's musical, Beauty and the Beast, which wasn't a bad show by any means. A big part of the improvement is in the visual design, with a set by Lino Toyos that captures the look and feel of the New York subway with cartoon-like brilliance. Girders are painted pink, yellow and green. Subway cars herk-and-jerk along in an inspired bit of stagecraft. A scene shift to Chinatown is sensational.

The adaptation by writer Victoria Holloway and composer Lee Ahlin turns Selden's 150-page book, a Newbery winner from 1960, into a well-paced show that runs about 80 minutes. The adaptation retains some amusing anachronisms, such as a $2 bill and Musical America, the defunct classical music magazine.

Ahlin leads a three-piece combo, set up in an alcove at the rear of the set. As in past productions, his score has plenty of catchy tunes, but what most distinguishes this one is the increased use of underscoring, incidental passages played under dialogue and action.

Elizabeth Silon plays Chester, a cricket from Connecticut who ends up living in the Bellini family newsstand in the station beneath Times Square. Silon has a broad, exuberant performing style that went over well with Friday morning's audience of schoolchildren.

Mark Chambers is weirdly funny as Tucker the Cat, with mannerisms reminiscent of Renfield, the supreme oddball of Dracula. In Selden's story, cat and mouse are best friends, as Tucker lives with Harry the Cat (Ricky Wright) in a drain pipe. Harry has the best wisecrack, a complaint about "dish-pan paws."

John Huls plays several parts, including a hilariously gender-bent Mama Bellini, a grande dame in high-heeled pumps. Mama is no fan of Chester: "Bugs carry germs," she sniffs, incongruously slipping into a deep South drawl. Mama gives Poppa Bellini (Edmund J. Kearney) fits, but he loves her all the same.

Lisa Kay Powers plays Mario, who takes Chester in. Powers, with a husky vocal style, has the Dead End Kid persona down pat.

The show opens and closes with the stirring Here Underground, a big number with an enjoyable but derivative tone. Ahlin must have been listening to a recording of Les Miserables when he wrote it.


The Cricket in Times Square

American Stage Children's Theater at Mahaffey Theater Friday morning. Stage adaption by Victoria Holloway of the children's book by George Selden, with music by Lee Ahlin. Holloway directed. Shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under.