Fort Worth — The sad, slow strains of an accordion float out of the darkness before colorful lights and magical moments emerge to take us somewhere old that feels new. Thus begins Hip Pocket Theatre’s latest creation, Lili. James Maynard began his stage adaptation of MGM’s 1953 film (screenplay by Helen Deutsch from Paul Gallico’s short story) of the same name 30 years ago, and we’re lucky to finally have director John Murphy’s vision that beautifully captures the simple aesthetic of that time and that film.
A play populated by puppets (design by Maynard), acrobats, and a magician is perfect for Hip Pocket’s otherworldly location and counterculture feel. The fact that they can pull off such a sweet little story marked by whimsy and a total lack of guile with today’s jaded audiences is remarkable.
Lili (Christina Cranshaw) is a French country girl seeking a bit of solace in town, but quickly finds herself in the hands of those who want to take advantage of her. She soon becomes infatuated with a carnival troupe, especially its super-suave magician, “Marcus the Magnificent” (James Warila), and a collection of sassy puppets. Her story of love, wonder, and independence is convoluted, yet punctuated by delightful moments of beauty and discovery.
Cranshaw plays the 16-year-old Lili with lovely earnestness and makes sure that we experience all the magic and heartache through her big eyes. High praise for Warila for not making his magician creepy (not easy with that role), and his assistant/wife, Rosalie (a sparkling and feisty Frieda Austin, who also provides dance direction, in a role made famous by Zsa Zsa Gabor) does fine work as well. And Jeff Stanfield provides a nice bit of pathos in his role as the Paul Berthalet, an “Angry Man” with a secret.
The rest of the ensemble is seamless in their execution of the material, especially dancers/acrobats/puppeteers Elysia Worcester, Kim Smires, Lauren Moreau, Sara Blair and Brian Cook.
Music cues are taken from Bronisław Kaper’s film score with the musical number, "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" (lyrics by Deutsch, and a very popular song from the movie) as perhaps the most enchanting part of a play rife with charm.
Hip Pocket’s Lili is a time machine that transports us back to when Hollywood could still make films like this. Kudos to Maynard for finally getting his “labor of love…a song of love” onstage where it belongs. It is worth the wait.