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re: turnip family secrets

feature in the SB Independent, 4-11-02

"who's hot," in the SB News-Press, 4-12-02

review in the Independent, 4-18-02

Santa Barbara News Press, Wednesday, April 17, 2002
By Starshine Roshell

NEWS PRESS Staff writer 
        Everything about the grownup musical fairytale "Turnip Family Secrets" is delightfully imaginative: an outlandish storyline, ingenious scenic design, golden story-book limiting and an inventive and flexible score that bends from sultry to sinister and bounces all the way back to snappy. Even the purple paper program smacks of fancy, promising scenes set "In the sky" and on "A vast and featureless plateau," and songs titled "Don't Treat Me Like an Idiot" and "I'll Pull Off the Giant's Nose." But audiences may need more than vivid imaginations to unearth the meaning of this anything-but-garden-variety play. It may take a heavy plow.

    Written by Michael Smith, the story is about a salt-of-the earth family that grows a mammoth turnip, moves into it, is besieged by an irksome giant and ultimately chucks the whole soiled situation for an extended European holiday. Occasionally absurd and frequently obscure, the short show seems to be a sort of parable about the thrill of pulling up roots, both those of the homegrown veggie variety and those that fetter us to our
family homes. At. its best, director Deanne Anders' experimental production is thought-provoking, funny and offers a good-natured elbow-ribbing at the somewhat bizarre conventions of children's theater. Here, larger-than-life characters tackle cliche-ridden dialogue with exaggerated volume and enunciation, blaring inane quips like, "Oh, yes, this is fine!" with staggering enthusiasm.
      Of course, stylized language and performances put emotional distance between the audience and the antics, ever-reminding us that the on-stage world is strange and unfamiliar. The notion is enhanced by dreamlike, even nightmarish, visual cues, including wildly original set pieces by Yadi Zeavin, a creepy blinking eye by artist Tiffany Story and an oversized papier-mache giant's nose by Richard McLaughlin. When combined with amplified snorting, the latter strikes a curious balance between wonderfully silly and scary. 

    Josef Woodard's music is perhaps the most inviting and engaging aspect of the production. Set to Mr. Smith's clever lyrics, which are sometimes drowsed out by Mr. Woodard's visible and capable five-piece band, the tunes employ the familiar rhythms of jazz, tango, rock, rap and even a passionate polka or two. The results can be meditative and haunting, or wonky arid whimsical.

    The music enhances the storytelling with complex chords and even screeching cacophony, and the band follows suit with sound effects like windy wooshing,clippi1y clops and the chilling clanks of a rattling metal toolbox. The four actors deserve high praise for their sheer willingness to go along on this wild ride. Especially game is Fred Lehto, who does wonders with the cryptic script and roots his character, Cal, in a wondrous wide-eyed optimism. His real-life wife Paula Re brings a lovely singing voice to her role as Cal's pragmatic better half, Bess. Geren Piltz's expressive body language and his visible enthusiasm for his role as their son David are mesmerizing.

    Further testament to the show's creative spirit is the casting of preteen Geoffrey Bell as both the stomping, roaring giant and the omniscient garden fairy in argyle socks and knickers. A sixth-grader, Mr. Bell gets extra points for his dedication to a story that left even adults in the audience scratching their beads and saying things like, "I think it's an allegory."
    Surely it's no accident, though, that nonsense found its way into this yarn. Toward the end, when Bess croons, "I used to think life made sense," it is clear that Mr. Smith wants to remind us bow positively confounding even the most humdrum existence can be.

    There are other turnip family "secrets" as wellóvague messages about responsibility, surmounting colossal challenges, shrugging off the burden of possessions and answering the call of your heart. 

    But these lessons are buried pretty deep in the colorful flower bed that is the text You don't have to be a mental giant to find them, but you have to be willing to dig.

Zeniths of Zany
Turnip Family Secrets, at Center Stage Theater through April 21.
What could be weirder than a modern day fairy tale about a son who convinces his bumpkin parents to hollow out their farmís biggest turnip and move on in? The answer: a musical play based on that very premise called Turnip Family Secrets, written as a labor of love by Michael Smith, composed with 18 original jazzy cuts by Joe Woodard, and directed with just enough confusing care by Deanne Anders.
From the very first scene with Bess and Calóplayed by real-life couple Paula Re and Fred Lehtoóitís clear that this is no ordinary production, as the two peruse their garden thatís overflowing with turnips of enormous size, while singing frumpy farm songs about vegetables and domestic strife. The overzealous yet entirely dependent son David, acted exuberantly by Geren Piltz, manages to persuade his parents to inhabit the turnip, a 15-foot-tall red and white stage prop, and any sort of rural-based reality that existed prior to the big move is tossed deep into the giant hole left by the overgrown tuber. Throw in sixth-grader Geoffrey Bellís exploratory yet destructive, giant and well-meaning yet intrusive fairy, and Turnip Family Secrets succeeds in playfully baffling the audience while passing along biting commentary on white, middle-class suburban life at the same time.
There are a few interesting stage conventions along the way, especially the upright bed scene between Cal and Bess that shoots far past any of the innuendo thatís strewn throughout the rest of the production. The extended scenes of darkness also tweak the theater-going experience, puzzling those who might actually think they understand the play, past any semblance of meaning.
In several post-production barroom conversations after opening night, itís clear to this reviewer that confusion was exactly what Smith intended, as neither the actors nor the musicians really know what the playís about anyway. Therein lies the bungled beauty of Turnip Family Secrets: You leave the theater not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or just walk home straight-faced, a muddled mind-set that can only be created by productions that are practiced in the art of confusion.