What are orange and fuzzy and shriek like ticklish schoolgirls? Gappers.
If you don't live in Frip, you might find that a puzzling answer. However, for the long-suffering residents of that beleaguered seaside community, Gappers are a routine nuisance of daily life, to be battled and endured without question.
You see, Gappers adore goats and blindly seek out the objects of their infatuation, swarming out of the ocean and battening on the ovine population, with devastating effects on the local economy. When, for expediency's sake, the exhausted Gappers decide to focus their efforts on the farm nearest a cliff overlooking the water, leaving the fortunate goats farther inland untouched, the tenuous social balance of Frip is rudely disrupted.
Based on George Saunders' popular children's book, "The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip," an offbeat new musical, is presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as part of the Center Theatre Group's PLAY series. Billed as appropriate for ages 6 and up, "Frip" doesn't always bridge the gap between adult fare and consistent children's entertainment. But despite occasional lapses, it is a handsomely designed and crisply staged production that gets high points for sheer whimsy.
The chief novelty is David O's score, a sophisticated, intricate and occasionally atonal mix that is innovative, to say the least. You might not go out of the theater humming these songs, but O's music, along with Doug Cooney's simple but deft book and lyrics, strikes a tone of innocent spontaneity entirely appropriate to the material. When the Gappers croon their nonsense (they're adorable puppets designed by Alice Dinnean Vernon and manipulated by cast members in rain gear), it's wholly charming.
Also charming is Keith Mitchell's quirky set design, which features a large central billboard picturing the dilapidated village with the ironic slogan "Frip! A Comfortable Place to Stay." Paralleling the onstage action, a string of tiny orange Gappers crawl up the billboard and into the town.
Shaun Fillion's lighting and John Zalewski's sound contribute to the mood and merriment, but the action isn't all sunny and funny. The story has its darker side. Capable (Jamey Hood), the spunky protagonist, has recently lost her mother and must cope with a depressed and largely inert father. When the Gappers beset her farm, she turns to her newly Gapper-free neighbors for help. But the neighbors, sure that their good fortune is a sign of their moral superiority, refuse to come to her aid. And Capable, sensible child heroine that she is, must devise a radical new solution to her desperate dilemma.
In Corey Madden's nifty staging, this childlike yarn echoes surprisingly adult themes. A crack cast plays things broadly and briskly, with the exception of Hood, who is effectively unpretentious. Hubert Hodgin is sympathetically wistful as Capable's father; Sonja Alarr shines as a bombastic busybody who dangerously rationalizes her own cruelty; and Olivia Killingsworth and Lena Gwendolyn Hill skillfully alternate as brash boys and girly girls.
Abetted by Audrey Fisher's colorful costumes, Tom Beyer plays both an obnoxious man and his simpering wife. Initially quick-changing from one character to the other, Beyer finally winds up in an outfit that is male on one side, female on the other, and simply revolves on his heels to turn from pater to mater. It's a whirling "Victor/Victoria" performance that is a "turn" in the truest sense of the word -- and, to belabor the pun, splits sides.
'The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and March 19, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. March 16 and 18
Ends: March 19
Price: $10 to $20
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.KirkDouglasTheatre.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes