Chrissy Naruo is pictured in rehearsal for the musical "On Dragonfly Wings."

Naruo flies high
‘On Dragonfly Wings’

Lisa Matsumoto's star has
a knack for physical comedy

"On Dragonfly Wings"

Presented by 'Ohi'a Productions

When: Continues at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Hawaii Theatre
Cost: Tickets are $15 to $40. (A $5 ticket discount is good for all seats for performances tomorrow, Thursday and Friday only. To use the discount, call the theater with the password "guppy.")
Call: 528-0506

Crystal Pond is pretty much the same, but the story of Wendy Waterbug and "the change" that caused her metamorphosis from aquatic bug to air-breathing dragonfly has been reworked in 'Ohi'a Productions' "On Dragonfly Wings," playing at Hawaii Theatre.

Chrissy Naruo sparkles as playwright Lisa Matsumoto's spunky and optimistic protagonist. A scene in which Naruo is choreographed to be out of synch with the ensemble shows she has a knack for physical comedy over and above her vocal appeal.

Angela Angel, John "JB" Bryan, Kelsey Chock, Dwayne Fujitani, Neil N. Furukawa and Michael K. Pa'ekukui add to the bright ambience in secondary comic roles. The overall impression is that co-directors Matsumoto, Patrick Fujioka and Reiko Ho have amped up the story's comic elements while playing down the poignancy of Wendy's eventual separation from her loved ones in Crystal Pond.

The original story was inspired by a comment at the 1997 funeral of 3-year-old Alana Dung, who captured the heart of residents during her valiant fight against leukemia. The story of "Wendy the Waterbug" was intended to provide comfort to Dung's brother by equating Alana's death with the metamorphosis of an insect's aquatic larvae into an air-breathing adult form that lives in "a higher place."

Matsumoto has made changes above and below the waterline that separates inhabitants of Crystal Pond from a "higher place." In the 2001 production, Wendy had two sets of parents: one in the pond and one set, Dora and Desmond Dragonfly, waiting for her to join them above it. This time around, Wendy's underwater family consists of two pollywog/tadpole adults, two tadpole children, two snail children, and Wendy and her younger water bug sister. Wendy refers to the adults as "aunt" and "uncle" rather than as "mom" and "dad."

Dora (Mary Gutzi) has been rewritten as a single parent, and no mention is made of Desmond, who was as prominent as Dora in the original show. Wendy's older sister, Wilene Waterbug, and her water bug boyfriend, Wesley, have also been written out of the show. With them goes their big musical number, "With You," along with an ambiguous triangular relationship involving Wendy and Wesley in the "higher place."

Other ambiguities remain. Some inhabitants of Crystal Pond undergo "the change," but others never go to "a higher place." What are we to make of that? It's here that the admirable premise of "On Dragonfly Wings" becomes tangled in mixed metaphors. Equating death with metamorphosis may help kids find the concept of dying less frightening, but the change of the story is the equivalent of a child passing through puberty -- not dying.

Given that kids too young to be concerned about death or puberty are the intended audience, the many lengthy song-and-dance numbers will likely hold their attention despite the show's long running time, minimal plot and continuity issues. The new cast has star power as well.

The Tadpole Ballet adds color to Act I. The scene is from the dress rehearsal of the musical "On Dragonfly Wings," inspired by Alana Dung, who died from leukemia at age 3.

The snail brothers, Sydney (Trent Nakamura) and Simon (Dwayne Fujitani), were big hits with the opening night audience on Friday. Nakamura was consistently "cute" without ever becoming cloying. Fujitani, a veteran member of Matsumoto's theater ohana, added a nicely underplayed performance as Sydney's younger but larger brother.

John "JB" Bryan, an audience favorite in 2001, again plays a comic character that talks with a gratuitous, stereotypical Caribbean accent. Matsumoto's rewrite of Benjamin Basalisk, Bryan's character in 2001, as Carmine Caribbean Frog is a good idea considering that a frog would have also experienced "the change" where a lizard would not, but nothing in Bryan's performance or costume defines him as a being a frog.

MOST OF THE OTHER costumes emphasize color rather than other features representative of designated species. The two snails are clearly snails, and the walking stick and mantis costumes are equally imaginative, but most of the others lack identity. Matsumoto and choreographer Ka'ohi Yojo compensate by using movement to suggest the plight of newly metamorphosed frogs learning how to use their legs on land.

Facial expressions are the key to identifying the Pondettes -- Mara L. Bacon, Nohea Cambra, Zan M. De Peralta, Fran Gendrano, Tasha Ki'inani Libarios, Christy Joy K. Matsushige, Megan Mount and Noelle Poole -- as being a school of fish.

Puppet designer Michael Furuya's creations are again the production's greatest single accomplishment. The giant crowned crane is Furuya's masterpiece, but the great blue heron and several of the smaller birds and bees add important elements of wonder to the production. So does the combined work of set designers Kelly Berry and Dan Gelbman, and lighting designer Stephen Clear, in creating the various environments within the pond and above it.

"Dance of the Fireflies," performed in darkness as Wendy is transformed from water bug to dragonfly, is still the single most impressively choreographed number, although it seems less poignant than in 2001, when Janel Parrish played the lead.

The biggest and brassiest number in Act 2, "Bee All That You Can Bee," is a new gospel-lite piece that gives Matsumoto a showcase number playing a pregnant Queen Bee. Matsumoto works the comic character of the overbearing queen to good effect as kiddie entertainment. The piece benefits from the energetic vocal and visual support provided by Angel, Bacon and De Peralta as a trio of singing bees.

Matsumoto's showcase is one of several songs that does more to entertain rather than advancing the story or adding insight into Wendy's experiences. In contrast, the frogs' number in Act 2, "Change With the Times," does a good job of suggesting the challenges kids face at puberty. True, that's not "the change" that the story is intended to address, but such changes can be tough to handle and the subject holds much relevance for kids.

If nothing else, "On Dragonfly Wings" provides clean and wholesome family entertainment untainted by even a hint of cheap "potty" humor.

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