World War II England comes breathtakingly to life as Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre returns to the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts with the magical, musical, mesmerizing (and fact-based) 946: The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips.

You know you’re in for something out of the ordinary from the moment you enter the Bram Goldsmith Theater where “Blues Man” Akpore Uzoz and 946’s onstage band have already broken out into John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” from high atop Lez Brotherston’s storybook set as broom-wielding, coverall-sporting cast members make sure everything’s spic-and-span for the evening’s performance.

We’re soon transported to the Devonshire seaside village of Slapton, where miniature marionette versions of 12-year-old Lily Tregenza and her beloved puss Tips quickly morph into their lifelike selves,  the utterly winning Katy Owen as Lily opposite a full-size Tips The Cat (manipulated by Nandi Bhebhe), just one of puppet makers Lydie Wright and Sarah Wright’s wondrously whimsical creations.

The war may be raging 235 miles away in a bombarded London, but you’d hardly know it in Slapton, that is until child evacuees like Barry (Adam Sopp) suddenly show up in Lily’s elementary school classroom followed soon after by a contingent of Yanks sent to rehearse the upcoming, top-secret Normandy Invasion on the geographically similar Devon coast.

As classmates Lily and Barry bond, so too does the feisty female ragamuffin with black soldiers Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Bhebhe), and when she and her family too must evacuate their home for safety’s sake and poor Tips gets lost in the move, it’s Lily’s two American chums who make it their mission to find the feline even as they practice for what the higher-ups assure them will be a risk-free pre-Normandy practice run.

If only they could be so lucky.

Adapted by Michael Morpugo (of War Horse fame) and Rice from Morpugo’s children’s novel, the latest from Kneehigh captivates both as history lesson and as supremely imaginative, inventive theater.

Where War Horse dazzled with gigantic puppet steeds, 946 proves equally exceptional on a smaller scale.

Marionette puss, pooch, barnyard fowl are particular marvels, but audiences will marvel too at naval ships doing battle in downstage metal bathtubs as a miniature parachutist floats down from the sky above.

Filled with delightfully comic characters (a biker granny, a gawky waif, and a jump-roping Churchill and Hitler among them), 946: The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips makes sure never to lose track of the gravity of the story it has to tell.

French Jewish refugee schoolteacher Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow) is but one reminder of what’s happening just across the Channel, and when the supposedly foolproof rehearsal goes not as expected, the consequences are devastating.

Above all, 946: The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in times of war, a message transmitted by an all-around superb cast of visiting Brits.

Bhebhe, Darlow, Gatwa, Kyla Gooney (Lily’s Mum), Chris Jared (Grandad Present, Vicar, Lily’s Dad), Craig Johnson (Lord Something-or-Others, Mrs. Turner), Owen, Mike Shepherd (Grandma Present, Grandad Past), Sopp (also Barry), and Uzoh (also Old Adi) are sheer perfection, among them several gender-benders who give Monty Python and Benny Hill a run for their money.

Kudos too to musicians Seamas Carey and Pat Moran, and to cast members like Darlow and Sopp who prove themselves equally talented members of the band.

The entire design team—set and costume designer Brotherston, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, and sound designer Simon Baker—deserve major snaps for the sheer wonder of what they have wrought, as do composer Stu Barker, music director Pat Moran, and choreographers Price and Etta Murfitt who together make 946: The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips the closest thing to a bona fide musical that a “play with music” can be.

Simon Harvey is associate director, Alex Shenton-Parkin is associate lighting designer, and Jay Jones is associate sound designer. Aled Thomas is production manager, Kate Foster is company stage manager, and Megan McClintock is stage manager.

As Kneehigh proved several years back at the Wallis with their unforgettable Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, no one else makes theatrical magic quite like Cornwall’s world-traveling troupe. The aptly titled 946: The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips is as amazing as live theater gets.

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Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
February 10, 2017
Photos: Steve Tanner

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