From Chicago Theatre Review
Up, Up and Away
January 16, 2018
By Colin Douglas
Early in the summer of 1783 two brothers performed an exciting experiment to prove to themselves, and the citizens of Annonay, France, that they had invented a means for flight. Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier were running the family paper-making business when young Joseph, described as a maverick and a dreamer, devised the prototype for what would become the hot air balloon. Made of taffeta and paper and coated with alum to make it fireproof, the “envelope” would rise from the ground when the globe-shaped device was filled with hot air, or Montgolfier gas, as they called it. To demonstrate to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette how this fantastic invention might be used to transport people, the brothers built a basket to hang beneath the globe-shaped envelope. They placed a sheep named Montauciel (which translates as “climb to the sky), a duck and a rooster in it for the first successful voyage aloft.
Lifeline Theatre ensemble member James E. Grote creatively dramatizes this historical event, but he cleverly does so from the point of view of the three animals. Partnered with Russell J. Coutinho with his catchy musical score, this 60-minute children’s play for the theatre’s KidSeries is not only entertaining but educational, as well.
The play depicts the 18th century event with whimsy and humor, but it also explains how six simple machines help to make our work easier. Grote centers his story around the plucky little French sheep, creating in Montauciel a character filled with joie de vivre and an insatiable curiosity about science. She leaves home, becomes an employee at the Montgolfier Paper Factory and partners with Joseph in his laboratory. In Grote’s story, Montauciel is the real brains behind the invention of the hot air balloon, along with a handful of other helpful inventions that all employ simple machines.
Although the beginning of this production could use a little more energy and fewer dramatic pauses, director Aileen McGroddy guides her cast in telling this story with flair and humor. Lifeline newcomer Kirra Silver is personable as Montauciel, and she becomes a whirling dervish in her delightfully choreographed song that introduces the six simple machines. Kudos, too, to Properties Designer Amanda Herrmann for her oversized picture book that offers great visuals for the young audience.
The other ensemble members, all of whom play multiple roles, include the magnificent Carisa Gonzalez, a gifted singer and comic actor, as a very funny Bessie the Duck. Jennifer Vance makes a very good, no-nonsense Rooster; Scott Ray Merchant is properly authoritative as Etienne; and Jordan Arredondo makes a marvelously energetic Joseph. He’s particularly funny mouthing both King Louis and his Queen behind their animated portrait.
This entertaining little musical by James E. Grote and Russell J. Countinho, aimed at ages five and up, will enchant audiences of all ages. The bonus in this little fantasy is the inclusion of both historical and scientific facts that parents and teachers can later discuss and build upon. Lifeline Theatre once again demonstrates that they’re one of Chicago’s finest theatre companies, providing delightful and inspiring plays and musicals for young audiences.
‘Montauciel Takes Flight’ Makes Science Soar at Lifeline Theatre
January 17, 2018
By Hallie Palladino
Montauciel Takes Flight at Lifeline celebrates science and the spirit of invention. You know a children’s show is successful if the kids are singing the songs on the car ride home. The charming original musical Montauciel Takes Flight, by James E. Grote (book) and Russell J. Coutinho (music and lyrics), directed by Aileen McGroddy, is based on the true story of the first living creatures to ride in a hot air balloon. The play tells the story of the Montgolfier brothers, paper manufacturers in 1783 France who launched a balloon containing a duck, a rooster and a sheep named Montauciel, a name that means “climb-to-the-sky.” The balloon and its animal occupants landed safely after traveling over two miles, ushering in a new era of manned flight.
The heroine of the musical Montauciel (Kirra Silver), is a curious young sheep who loves science. Silver communicates a youthful enthusiasm for science and learning that immediately draws children into the narrative. Her genuineness makes her character relatable to kids. She never plays down to them, rather she invites them to share in her excitement. Silver is well supported by the cheery ensemble playing her human and animal compatriots: Jordan Arrendondo (Joseph Montgolfier), Carisa Gonzales (Bessie), Scott Ray Merchant (Etienne Montgolfier) and Jennifer Vance (Rooster).
There’s a strong opening number about “the age of enlightenment” during which Montauciel muses that some folks fall in love with science and learning, while others seem afraid of science, preferring the old ways. Embracing the wonders of science is part of the show’s message. When Montauciel hears intriguing explosions coming from the Montgolfier paper mill she leaves home in hopes of meeting a fellow science enthusiast. When she arrives she discovers the sounds were coming from Joseph’s lab. He’d rather do science than make paper and so he hires her to work in his place so he can spend his time experimenting. She’s disappointed but soon learns making paper involves science too. After a quick lesson in how old rags are turned into paper pulp it’s her turn to instruct her new employers (some human and some animal) about “the six simple machines” in the show’s most memorable number. The song admirably manages to turn this unwieldy list into a catchy tune. Indeed, my children were singing about “the wheel and the axle, the lever and the pulley, the inclined plane and the screw (and the wedge)” the rest of the afternoon.
Montauciel also covers the scientific method, teaching her friends to formulate and test a hypothesis. She gently coaxes Joseph Montgolfier toward understanding science is more than just setting off cool explosions and he invites to join him in his work. Soon their experiments attract royal attention and the inventors go on an adventure to meet King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, played by a talking portrait with mouth holes, much to the delighted squeals of the children in the audience.
Lifeline’s signature aesthetic features costumes and design elements that elevate everyday things with a little theater magic. I appreciate this because it shows children how simple it is to take the objects around them and transform them into elements of a story. It’s thrilling when the characters create their wondrous balloon from found objects. The blue sheet backdrop representing the sky starts to billow when the animals start their journey and suddenly we are all flying. After the show my children were excitedly discussing the types of paper and fabric the Montgolfiers used to make their balloons and speculating how they might conduct their own hot air experiments. Montauciel Takes Flight makes both science and theater accessible to kids.
Most children’s productions at Lifeline are adaptations of well-known books making Montauciel a slight departure, though a well-executed one. As a parent I celebrated that this play links science to everyday problem solving and brings to life an exciting but oft overlooked historical event, the invention of the hot air balloon. Parents may well find themselves just as inspired by the show’s spirit as their kids.
From the Chicago Reader
January 18, 2018
By Dan Jakes
Given that this world-premiere musical is about the scientific process, it’s fitting that Lifeline Theatre’s new children’s show utilizes so much lo-fi ingenuity and clever visual trickery to tell its story. Book writer James E. Grote reimagines the Montgolfier brothers’ real-life invention of the hot air balloon from the perspective of its animal test pilots: an ewe, a duck, and a rooster. (Positive spoiler: they fare better than most four-legged aeronauts mankind has launched toward the sky.) Russell J. Coutinho’s original music and lyrics include a handful of earwormy educational School House Rock-style toe tappers, and director Aileen McGroddy’s cast is universally warm and engaging. And maybe the biggest treat for parents and children alike: it clocks in at a tight hour.