Story: Spending the summer of 1929 in the Lake District of England, the eldest four Walker children befriend the two Blackett sisters. The Walkers steer their dinghy, the Swallow, onto an island where the Blackett sisters moor their own boat, the Amazon.
The kids combine forces as they imagine adventures of derring-do against the surly pirate leader, Captain Flint, otherwise known as the Blacketts’ Uncle Jim, who has abandoned them for the summer while he writes a book. When his house is burglarized and his book stolen, he blames the visiting Walkers. Fortunately, though, the Walker kids and Blackett girls unite to find the missing treasure.
Highlights: Based on a series of books by British author Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons was adapted into a musical that premiered in London in 2010, with a book by Helen Edmundson and music by Neil Hannon, eventually touring the United Kingdom until May 2012. The production featured adults playing all of the roles, including the children’s parts.
COCA’s recent production was only the second in the United States and the first anywhere to use age-appropriate casting. The result was a resounding success, tightly directed by Alec Wild (stage direction), Shanara Gabrielle (performance direction) and Jef Awada (movement direction), and showcasing several excellent performances by a delightful cast.
Other Info: Wild and Gabrielle assembled an impressive corps of professional technical artists, including set designer Robert Morgan, costume designer Garth Dunbar, lighting designer Maureen Berry, puppet artisan Marie Ojascastro and props artisan Jenny Smith.
Musical director Neal Richardson provided crisp musical accompaniment by a trio consisting of cellist Ethan Edwards, Steve James Neale on keyboard, percussion and guitar and Richardson on keyboard.
Morgan’s set consisted of the ‘bones’ of a towering ship that established the nautical background before which the performers and enthusiastic young audience members could let their imaginations convey into secret coves, unknown dangers and billowing waves surrounding the island. Dunbar’s costumes, including swimming suits, properly identified the era, and Berry’s lighting capably contrasted sunny days with starlit nights.
Steve Isom was a proper British sort as Uncle Jim and just as comfortable slipping into the guise of a gruff-talking pirate, while Taylor Pietz and Pete Winfrey proved quite adept at essaying a number of minor adult parts, complete with most convincing dialects.
The kids in the cast, though, proved particularly entertaining. They immersed themselves in the roles and carried right proper British accents throughout without missing a drum beat.
Kudos to Julia Schweizer as Titty, the eldest Walker daughter; Michael Help as young Roger Walker; Braden Phillips as John, the eldest Walker son; Sarah Koo as the intrepid Susan Walker; Shannon Walsh as the order-barking Blackett sister, Nancy; and Maria Knasel as her sister, Peggy. Reagan Kate Austin was a polished presence as the puppeteer for Polly the parrot.
Wild and Gabrielle did a splendid job eliciting convincing performances from the entire cast, who surely proved that children are up to the task of taking on the various kids’ roles in this old-fashioned yarn. Swallows and Amazons well represented the COCA Presents and COCA Theatre Company’s 2013-14 seasons.
Musical: Swallows and Amazons
Company: COCA Theatre Company
Venue: COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue
Dates: Run concluded
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak