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Just One World

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JUST ONE WORLD

at the Organic Theater

This is a season for millennial musicals. Court Theatre's The Mystery Cycle: Creation is a collage of Bible stories linked by themes of creation, destruction, and self-sacrifice. Now comes Just One World, an often-charming pop cantata that stirs up elements of Amazonian creation mythology, Aesopian fable, Christian day-of-judgment allegory, and Saturday-morning kids' cartoons.

The show has some glaring flaws--simplistic lyrics, static staging, and thinking almost as fuzzy as the animals who are its principal characters--and certainly anyone with an aversion to Disney-style anthropomorphism is well advised to stay away.

But Just One World has many lovely moments, too. Its songs may be preachy but they're also passionate, and that's unusual enough in the "let's not offend anyone" show-business marketplace to merit recommendation. The 12-person cast bursts with talent and conviction. And the core of the show is a fine, catchy jazz-rock score loaded with infectious hooks, captivating counterrhythms, and glossy, glowing instrumental textures.

Aimed at an all-ages audience, Just One World is a fabulist warning against global warming and an ode to the delicate interrelationship of earth's life forms. A group of animals share a tiny island that turns out to be the center of creation; when a fire set by the "take me creatures" (humans) threatens to destroy the island, the animals seek to devise a response. The ancient turtle who's the group's "official maker of all decisions" reveals that he has the power to grant one animal a voice that humans can understand--but the gift brings with it agony and death. The animals compete for it nevertheless, and in so doing exhibit their special qualities--the jungle cat's strength, the snow swan's beauty, the spider's efficiency, and so on. Finally the role of self-sacrificial scapegoat is handed, appropriately, to a goat.

As it happens, these animals possess many human traits. Indeed, their behavior seems a case study in how humanity has gotten into the environmental mess it's in: the leader of the pack is a doddering old turtle (why did I keep thinking of Ronald Reagan?) whose counselors bicker among themselves over unimportant details while the fire rages ever closer. Unfortunately the characters' dual function--to embody the precious qualities of animals and the destructive qualities of people--is the most confusing aspect of John Lisbon Wood's script, which contains some funny lines but is generally far inferior to the score.

I admit that I share this show's sensibilities: I, too, am a fan of WNUA and Stevie Wonder records. Just One World could easily be subtitled "Journey Through the Secret Life of Animals," and Eric Mercury's lyrics sometimes recall Wonder's at their most mawkish: "Home is inside you," "Let the spirit fill me," "Let us all become who we are inside / We can run but we can't hide," and inevitably, "Save our planet." Words like these are an act of faith, not logic or craftsmanship. But they're more than serviceable for Ira Antelis's slickly inventive music, which is lighter than Tommy but considerably hipper than Les Miserables; it's been a long time since I left a theater singing songs from a new show.

Though Davey Marlin-Jones's staging and the choreography by Blair Bybee and Randy Duncan are stiff, their simplicity helps focus the audience's attention on the soulful singing of such performers as William Dick as the turtle (his "A Prayer for Light" is absolutely gorgeous), power-pipes teenager Dawn Morgan as the goat, Aisha de Haas as a sassy lemur with a Pearl Bailey attitude, Terence Charles Rodgers as the big cat, and Mark Damon Espinoza as the larger-than-life spider. Lanky Paul Slade Smith has a nice comic turn as the gawky platypus who mocks the rest of the world with "Fools Rules," and chorus member Michael Camacho steals the show with a hot, husky funk solo.

With performers of such talent and energy, and the pretty primitive/futuristic designs of Gary Heitz (lights), Lois K. Carder (costumes), and Gardiner/Price Design (sets), Just One World is often enchanting. It would be a shame, however, if audiences singing and bopping along to Antelis and Mercury's environmentalist anthems thought that that was enough to protect the sphere we live on; there's a lot of hard work to be done, and I wish this show had a harder edge beneath its seductive, shiny surface.

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