On a farm near a beach in South Devon, Lily, a 12-year-old girl with pigtails and lots of attitude, is looking for her lost cat, Tips.
This desperate search, so simple and resonant, is the focal point in Kneehigh’s enchantingly low-tech, imaginative play with music, “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” an American premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
In no way a traditional musical, the show consists of comic characterizations as well as powerful dramatic performances; the most wonderfully athletic dancing; expressive marionettes; miniature people that morph into real people; tiny naval ships battling in tin buckets of water; a doll-sized house with smoke curling out of its chimney; a vintage red tractor; and more.
It’s adapted by Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice and Michael Morpurgo (who wrote “War Horse”) from the latter’s children’s book and performed by the Cornwall-based company’s multi-talented 12-member ensemble.
Morpurgo based his story on a World War II incident: American soldiers, including African-Americans from the then-segregated military, were stationed in Slapton, on the Devon coast, to rehearse for the upcoming D-Day invasion. Locals like Lily and her family were relocated to temporary lodgings for the duration. What happened then forms the story’s dramatic climax.
In “946” (that number in the title is significant), a bond forms between bereft Lily — whose own father is off fighting in France, and who has presumably never seen a black man before — and two soldiers in particular, Harry and Adi, who promise to find her cat for her. That bond reverberates through time.
Other relationships, more fleeting but equally moving, take shape: Lily and a gawky evacuee schoolmate, the local schoolteacher and Lily’s stubborn grandfather and more.
And, as the play weaves gently in and out of time, there’s also the cross-generational bond between a young man and his motorbike-riding grandma.
We’ve seen several of the decades-old British company’s previous works locally, including “Brief Encounter” and “The Wild Bride,” but the stage magic they create here is unsurpassed.
Original songs (plus a few familiar oldies), by Stu Barker, and mostly sung, to great effect, by the entire ensemble, range from gospel to big-band era compositions; the joyous dancing, choreographed by Rice (swing, jitterbug and the like) showcases the cast’s superb gymnastic skills; and the actors themselves comprise the musical ensemble — along with two musicians — that’s perched on an upstage platform.
This is a story that works on multiple levels, and a production that’s utterly captivating.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Kneehigh, Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Tuesdays through Sundays, closes Jan. 15
Tickets: $29 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org