In 2006, when Lewis Mahlmann, Fairyland’s master puppeteer for 43 years, formally retired from his position, we dedicated our Storybook Puppet Theater to him. Now 85, Lewis doesn’t often leave his home, but three years ago he created exquisite new puppets for “The Magic Blossom,” based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Our revival of the play, which begins Friday, features the debut of Lewis’s beautiful creations.

It’s going to be a very special production for several reasons. For one, Lewis has made it clear that these are his final puppet creations. For another, this year’s production has been reimagined with gorgeous new scenery and sound effects.

Most gratifying of all, Lewis has told us he’ll make a rare return to the park to see the production. He hasn’t said exactly when, but we’re all looking forward to welcoming him.

You may wonder whether it’s appropriate to stage a Shakespeare play—even one with puppet actors—for very young children. Lewis has strong opinions on the subject. He believes that children should be exposed from an early age to the best cultural offerings. That’s why Fairyland has presented shows based on such classics as “The Magic Flute,” “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Nutcracker,” “Coppelia” and “Peer Gynt.” Lewis’s successor at our theater, Randal Metz, who worked with Lewis for 44 years and remains in almost daily contact with him, aims to carry on that tradition.

“Neither of us believes you should underestimate your young audience,” Randal says. “They’ll take away what they want, and get a little bit of culture along the way.”

“The Magic Blossom” focuses on the story of Fairy Queen Titania, her king, Oberon, the mischievous Puck, and the enchanted mortal, Bottom. Lewis wrote the play, and has performed three versions of it since its premiere in the 1960s. He sold his puppets from the original production to an American Conservatory Theater professor in the 1980s

Lewis Mahlmann-designed puppets for “The Magic Blossom,” opening Friday at Children’s Fairyland. Photo by Maria Rodriguez

Lewis Mahlmann-designed puppets for “The Magic Blossom,” opening Friday at Children’s Fairyland. Photo by Maria Rodriguez

When Randal asked if Lewis would consider bringing back the show to Fairyland, Lewis said yes, adding that he had a special idea about what these puppets should look like. During Lewis’s world travels over the years, he met Jiri Trnka, a Czechoslovakian artist and puppet master who was known as “the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe,” and whose films featured stop-motion animation and puppets with beautiful and expressive faces.

His 1959 film, “Midsummer,”— a “ballet of mime and fairies” as Trnka described it—created much controversy when it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival. “It is a film full of invention, humor, [and] refinement, and we are fascinated by its rare beauty,” wrote the critic of Le Parisien Libere. On the other hand, “Trnka sent even garden gnomes into Shakespeare’s realm,” sniped the Suttgarter Zeitung critic. Back home, the Czech audience loved it.

Trnka, who is recognized as having broken away from the “dominant Disney tradition,” established the puppet film as serious adult entertainment. “Midsummer” was eventually dubbed into English with narration by Richard Burton.

Lewis’s puppets, while paying homage to Trnka’s film, are simplified and clothed in charming, childlike costumes, layered in flowers. The music accompanying the production is by Felix Mendelssohn, the 19th-century Romantic composer best known for his famous “Wedding March,” which was originally created as incidental music for a theatrical production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Randal says it’s “an honor and a challenge” to adapt Lewis’s show into its current version. He’s cut a couple of minutes from the dialogue, added “enchanting” sound effects and redesigned the scenery based on Lewis’s original designs. Artist Annie Wong upped the ante by creating a breathtaking backdrop that makes you feel that you’ve entered a fairy grove at midnight.

Randal’s biggest challenge, he says, was to “not inflict my outrageous humor, and keep it as a romantic piece for children.” He acknowledges that we’re living in an era of computers, fast-paced videogames and cartoons, but he’s seen how successful Fairyland has been in getting kids to step back, listen and immerse themselves into something a little slower, “something magical.”

Randal, who has worked with Lewis since he was 10, could not be happier that his mentor’s work will live on in our theater through the 150 shows he’s donated to us.

We can’t wait to welcome Lewis home, and we won’t be alone. “He always draws crowds and thanks,” says Randal. “He’s had a positive effect on generations of kids, myself included.”

“The Magic Blossom” opens Friday, July 12, and plays through Aug. 29. Join us to celebrate Lewis Mahlmann’s parting gift to the puppet theater, and the kids, he loves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.