- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

If you don’t already have seats for Amon Miyamoto’s “Up in the Air: The Story of Boonah, the Tree-Climbing Frog,” continuing through tomorrow at the Kennedy Center’s intimate Family Theater, chances are you won’t be able to see this clever, inventive play this time around.

Tickets for its five-performance run — part of the center’s two-week Japan! Culture + Hyper Culture festival — sold out earlier this week.

It’s easy to see why.

The musical, running a brisk 90 minutes with no intermission, mesmerized the crowd at Thursday’s world premiere with its witty dialogue and showstopping tunes belted out with vigor by its talented eight-member ensemble cast embodying animal characters with all-too-human traits.

Traditional life lessons on good versus evil, honesty and betrayal abound — although its preaching about environmental stewardship and protecting all creatures great and small gets a bit heavy-handed. (Parents also should be forewarned that although “Air” is playing in the Family Theater, a bit of salty language is sprinkled throughout.)

“Air” is conceived by actor-choreographer-director Amon Miyamoto (“Pacific Overtures”), directed by Tony nominee Bill Russell (“Side Show”) and set to music by Tony- and Oscar-nominated composer Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls”). It is adapted from the late novelist Tsutomu Mizukami’s beloved children’s tale about Boonah (Stanley Bahorek), an inquisitive and adventurous frog who finds life at the top isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Leaving his family behind, he scales the tallest tree in the pond and quickly finds a nook on its highest perch. At first, all seems well, as he sings in “This Is the Life.” His tranquillity soon is disturbed by a pair of bickering married sparrows (the delightful Jill Abramovitz and the outstanding Jonathan Hammond), but the real trouble begins when a menacing hawk turns up to stalk the trio as prey.

In time, several other animals make the trek to the top of the tree — including the great Lillias White (a Tony winner for “The Life”) as the cunning and hungry Snake, Deborah Lew as a beautiful Siberian Thrush, Mr. Hammond as the lowly Rat, David McDonald as the wisecracking Shrike and Michael-Leon Wooley as the jovial Bullfrog. Soon the once-euphoric atmosphere turns to mortal fear as the ever-hovering hawk picks the animals off one by one.

For Boonah, the issue becomes not who will make it, but the lesson he learns from each creature throughout the ordeal. A happy ending isn’t promised, but as the musical constantly reminds us, life — and everything in it — is cyclical. ****

WHAT: Amon Miyamoto’s “Up in the Air: The Story of Boonah, the Tree-Climbing Frog”

WHERE: Family Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 3 p.m.

TICKETS: Sold out. (The Kennedy Center says tickets may be available from last-minute cancellations; check with the box office.)

INFORMATION: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

WEB ADDRESS: www.ken-nedy-center.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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