The New York Times
Listening to a Friend
by Laurel Graeber
January 21, 2005

In children’s literature, young heroes and heroines are transported to other worlds in various ways: a rabbit hole, a tornado, an old wardrobe. But Dante Russo has devised a passage better suited to today’s sedentary lifestyle: a couch.

That’s the magic portal in “Extraordinary!,” a new musical from Vital Children’s Theatre. Lester, 9, disappears into it with his imaginary friend, Fred, and Lester’s cousin, Hope. Like other children in faraway realms, they’re on a quest: Hope is deaf, and Lester wants to find her hearing. When gently told that her hearing is not like a lost watch, Lester hopes to restore it through the powers of the queen of the kingdom inside the couch: the Land of Quiet.

It’s surprising that a boy as old as Lester has never learned about deafness. It’s not at all surprising, though, that Hope should ultimately choose to stay the was she is. But to Mr. Russo’s credit, “Extraordinary” teaches the importance of accepting differences without being either saccharine or sanctimonious. The show, directed by Carrie Libling, also offers a twist in the character of the queen, who has her own reasons for wanting a world of silence.

Children will enjoy the adventures in the Land of Quiet, as well as the rich score by David F. M. Vaughn. Eli Kranski as Lester and Erin Walters as Hope make the cousins’ relationship especially appealing, as they discover that despite different forms of communication, they need have no trouble understanding each other.

“Extraordinary!,” through Fed. 6 at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, at 76th Street, fourth floor. (212) 352-3101. Saturdays at 1p.m.; Sundays at 1 and 3p.m. Tickets: $15.


The New York Sun
Hardly Ordinary Children's Theater
by Sheila Callahan
January 17, 2005

"Extraordinary!", a children's musical appearing at Vital Theatre Company's new home on the Upper West Side, delivers delight to theatergoers ages 2 to 12, but its humor and message appeals to older audiences as well.

Performed weekends through February 6, "Extraordinary!", the second of four children's shows in Vital's 2004-05 season, tells the tale of 9-year-old Lester, his imaginary friend Fred, and Lester's deaf cousin Hope, who embark on an adventure through the living room couch to search for Hope's lost hearing.

With stadium seating in plush green velvet chairs and unobstructed views, the 15-row McGinn/Cazale Theatre accommodates 100-plus people and provides a grown-up, professional theater experience. Even on a recent rainy Saturday, Vital Theatre drew an audience to its performance.

Lester's mom, played by Dianna DiPalma, who also played several other characters, wore pink stilettos, a pink cardigan, and a snappy skirt with a cute green apron as she feather-dusted the living room, exhorting Lester to clean up his stuffed animals and do his homework before Hope, his cousin from California, arrived. Lester, played by Eli Kranski, jumped on the couch, busy at play with Fred, his imaginary friend, performed by Chris Janssen. Mother, marching offstage to cook her "meatless meatloaf," elicited a big giggle from one youngster close to the stage.

A doorbell rang. "Lester, answer the door," called Mother from offstage. Lester, busy talking to Fred, took his time, yelling, "Come in." The bell rang again. "What's wrong with her?" whined Lester, who had not met Hope before. "What, is she deaf?" he said, impatient at the ringing. She was, indeed. Pig-tailed Hope, played by Erin Walters, wore a bright yellow dress and an embroidered denim jacket, and entered carrying a Strawberry Shortcake bag and a basket of shiny Granny Smith apples.

Lester, unprepared for the fact that Hope did not speak the way he did (she signs), relied on Fred to interpret for him. Lester suggested an adventure through the couch. "We can search for Hope's hearing." Ever sensible, Fred replied, "Hope's hearing is not something you look for like a lost stick of gum."

And so the trio embarked on their adventure through the "Land of Quiet," along the way confronting a sign that read, "Beware the dust mites" - "What are dust mites?" asked a boy in the audience - and characters such as the "Girl with Legs of Stone," "Peter the Chocolate Eater," a pair of dancing dust mites, and the Queen of Quiet, who, like Hope, cannot hear. The characters learn along the way that everyone has qualities that make them extraordinary.

The young audience members, many of whom were seeing their first theater performance, said they enjoyed the show. "I really liked it," said Alicia Riveara, 5 years old, wearing purple slacks and pink boots. Christina Alvarez-Correa, also 5, said that Hope was her favorite character. Alicia agreed, explaining, "She brought the apples; that's why." Rachel Mizrachi, age 6 1 /2, said of "Extraordinary!", "I loved it." About Hope, Rachel said, "It doesn't matter if you can't talk. You're still special the way you are."

Dante Russo wrote the book and lyrics for "Extraordinary!" and David F.M. Vaughn wrote the music. Carrie Libling directed, Allison Regnault provided the choreography, and Jenna Rossi-Camus the innovative and fun costumes in this nine-character musical performed by six actors. A solo piano track (performances by Marcus Baker, David F.M. Vaughan, and William Wade) accompanies all the singing.

“Extraordinary!” is produced by the Vital Theatre Company, at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, above the Promenade Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, 4th Floor. Performances run Saturdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. & 3 p.m. through February 6. On Martin Luther King Day an additional performance will take place at 2 p.m. All tickets cost $15. For reservations, visit www.theatermania.com or call 212-352-3101.


Playbill Online (Excerpt)
Fringe Binge: Annual Downtown Manhattan Theatre Festival Fires Starting Gun
by Robert Simonson
August 12, 2005

The scrappy theatre blitz known as the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival will lay seige to lower Manhattan Aug. 12, as dozens upon dozens of shows get underway.Tickets for all the shows at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival went on sale July 30, and the popular downtown theatre event took in just under $25,000 in sales (all at $15 per ticket) in its first 24 hours, according to a spokesperson. As of Aug. 8, $100,000 worth of tickets had been purchased.

The festival's big first-day intake was up about 45% over the previous year's at this time. Among the early hot tickets for the ninth annual summer event are Bridezilla Strikes Back!, Fleet Week, EXTRAORDINARY and Fluffy Bunnies in a Field of Daisies.

The Rude Pundit in the Year of Living Rudely has sold out its run, and Silence! The Musical is well on its way.

A complete guide for all the shows at this year's New York International Fringe Festival, Aug. 12-28, is now available online at www.FringeNYC.org. Tickets to all shows are $15 each, and multi-show discount passes are also available. For more information, call (212) 279-4488 (in NY) or (888) FringeNYC (outside NY).


Reviewed by Dan Bacalzo

While many of this year's Fringe offerings are strictly for adults only, a handful of shows -- labeled "Fringe Jr." entries -- are aimed at family audiences. Among them is Extraordinary, a musical smartly crafted by book writer and lyricist Dante Russo and featuring a peppy, hummable score by David F.M. Vaughn.

Extraordinary chronicles the story of nine-year-old Lester (Richie Cook), the self-proclaimed "king of everything." The boy has no friends his age, other than Fred (Maxwell Glick), who's imaginary. Lester meets his cousin Hope (Sandie Rosa) and, upon discovering that she's deaf (but can see Fred), he leads Hope and Fred on an expedition to the Land of Quiet to find Hope's hearing. They discover that the land is ruled by a queen who'll grant one wish to anyone who can make it to her castle. They begin the journey and, along the way, they encounter others who have attempted the trek before them. They also learn the importance of friendship, the value of differences, and to be careful what they wish for.

Cook has a goofy energy that's fitting for Lester, while Glick is absolutely adorable as the imaginary Fred. Rosa has the difficult task of creating a nuanced character without uttering a single word, and she pulls it off admirably. Mary Theresa Archbold is very good as the Girl with Legs of Stone, but she and Rick Kunzi go over the top in their portrayals of the Dustmites that police the Land of Quiet. Likewise, Kunzi overplays his role of Peter the Chocolate Eater, and Kristen Seargent is too shrill as Mother and Lonely Lucy.

Russo, who also directs, keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the live band sounds fine under the musical direction of Jad Bernardo. While Extraordinary may not fully live up to its title, it's an enjoyable romp that is bound to please both children and parents.


Reveiwed by Geeta Citygirl

Extraordinary is a show that attempts to go beyond what is ordinary or usual while teaching acceptance of all peoples. Hurrah for this musical that tickles and delights audiences of all ages. When I read that this was part of the “Fringe Jr.” entries, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as I watched one of my new summer favorite venues, The Mazer Theater, fill up, I noticed the crowd on this afternoon was not just children.

Congratulations to Russo Famiglia Productions who in association with Vital Theatre Company present this musical adventure.

The book and lyrics are credited to the director, Dante Russo, who does an impressive job mounting this story (with the catchy music by David F. M. Vaughn) that reminded me of both Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. At the beginning of the play, we meet nine-year old Lester, the “King of Everything” (as he belts out in the opening song). Accompanied by his imaginary friend Fred, Lester is being scolded to clean by his mother. The chorus, “I am King… King of Everything” repeats so many times that you inevitably find yourself humming along.

The adventure takes off when Lester meets his deaf cousin Hope. He wants to get back her hearing and recalls mom’s advice. His mother tells him if he doesn’t clean the living room, there might be an entire world of people in that couch. So along with Fred and Hope (who can also see his imaginary friend), Lester dives into the couch to Imaginary Land to find her hearing. Watching the three actors "disappear" into the couch is wonderfully fairy-tale like. They are off to find the Queen who they believe will grant their wish. Along the way, they meet the Girl with Legs of Stone, Peter the Chocolate Eater, Lonely Lucy, and the dynamic Dustmites.

Played with genuine childlike innocence by the tall and handsome Richie Cook, Lester becomes a character we all root for. Maxwell Glick plays Fred with just the right amount of endearing kiddie qualities, and Sandie Rosa does a marvelous job as Hope and her ability to use sign language seems effortless (credit Miriam Morrow for the ASL instruction). Kristen Sergeant is a bit too nagging as the Mother but has fun being Lonely Lucy and the Queen. Mary Theresa Archbold as the Girl with Legs of Stone plays it with the quick pace required for a character who is obsessed with time racing by. The country-bumpkin like qualities brought to Peter the Chocolate Eater by actor Rick Kunzi are amusingly suitable. But my largest applause goes to Archbold and Kunzi for their portrayal of the Dustmites. The physical and vocal energy required for these outrageous characters does not go unnoticed. And the "Dustmite Jive" will get you rocking in your seat.

The proscenium stage is used wonderfully and every little detail is tended to. With a groovy live band conducted by musical director Jad Bernardo and fun dance numbers choreographed by Lindsay Rogan, all the production values get thumbs up. The crew is composed of more than 15 people (a large number of behind-the-scenes talent, especially for a FringeNYC show). Notably exceptional are the costumes by Majorie LeWit, scenic design that has the grace to smoothly change by Nikolaus Webern, props by Mike Horowitz, and lighting by Amith Chandrashaker.


Off-Off-Broadway Review (OOBR)
Reviewed by Deborah S. Greenhut

Extraordinary combines a world of signs with a world of sounds while traveling to hyperkinetic Lester’s (Harrison M. Ford) imaginary land to find cousin Hope’s (Kristin McCarson) hearing. This production is an encore for Vital Children’s Theatre, and, given the exceptional subject, it was easy to see why the company has reprised the play. In fact, Extraordinary contained not one but two deaf female characters, the other of whom was the Queen (Grace Sumner) in Lester’s imaginary kingdom. Playwright Dante Russo, a repeat collaborator with Vital, who offered Radiant Ruby during 2005, delivered a textured exploration of signs and signing matched by a complex, engaging musical score by David F. M. Vaughn, which received an Outstanding Music and Lyrics award from the New York International Fringe Festival in 1005. The play’s message was clear: “What makes you different makes you extraordinary”— how delightful that the differences were, in fact, reconciled in time for dinner in Lester’s real home.

Lester’s bouncy imagination kept the audience attentive. Surprising rules increased the stakes in unexpected ways: Who would have thought an imaginary friend could not make a wish? Parents may want to take note that some of the bursts of sound and music, true to Lester’s twists and turns, seemed a bit overwhelming for the youngest (below age 4), and the upper age recommendation of 12 might be optimistic for some older children. For the 4-9 year olds, this play seemed right on target. There was even a little something for the parents, with the mother’s love of the Beatles inspiring the topography of “imaginary land,” where eventually a certain Lucy did appear.

Strongest performances were offered by Fred, the most believable imaginary friend (Alan Houser), Mother (Grace Sumner), who also played Lucy and the Queen, contributing both a powerful voice and signing skills to the project, and, as both the Girl with Legs of Stone and Dustmite Janet, Heather Lynne Milner contributed another strong voice to the ensemble. The challenged cousin, Hope, was played with sweetness by Kristi McCarson, who made a point of connecting with the audience. The delicious bravura performance of the afternoon came from Peter Chocolate Cowboy (Michael Maricondi) who doubled as Dustmite Carl in the jive duet with Janet. Funky costume design (Hunter Kaczorowski) contributed, er, vital-ly to bringing that buggy number to life.

In the end, Lester had to bid goodbye to his naiveté about differences and to learn that an imaginary friend cannot stand in for understanding, but happily the living room transformed to the land of laughter in time to provide a grand finale. Excellent choreography (Derek Roland) and direction (Teresa K. Pond) on a simple and creatively functional psychedelic set (Elisha Schaefer) of panels and a modular couch were dramatically lit (Jason Teague) to heighten the action. At the conclusion, the audience scrambled in fine paparazzi fashion for the autographs so willingly given by the cast of Extraordinary.