Watching the Famous People Players in "A Little Like Magic" at the Lyceum Theater is rather like being Alice in her first few minutes in Wonderland, when everything before her eyes seemed a hallucination.
On a black stage, hands appear. They float into space a long way from the feet you thought they were connected to. Out of the blackness comes Liberace. He not only plays the piano, he dances on it. So do his famous candles.
There are plenty of famous puppet performers (Elvis, Barbra and Stevie, to name a few), but the best moments are those when the black stage is filled with floating apparitions - mammoth goldfish, an ungainly, spindly legged ballerina, a clown who ends his tightrope act wafted into space by a balloon, a stripper whose body literally disappears with every article of clothing she removes from it.
Toward the end of the show, the lights come on and for a few minutes we watch how it works. We see performers carrying two huge champagne bottles, weaving tipsily around the stage, knocking against each other.
But under the ultraviolet light a few minutes before, the movers were invisible and the fluorescent bottles looked as if they were dancing. Even if you know how it's done, you can't help falling under its spell.
What makes the evening all the more remarkable is that the performers are developmentally handicapped. Nothing about the adroit, inspired way they move the puppets - or themselves - would make you suspect it.
One of the problems of creating theater nowadays is that people are accustomed to looking at movie screens, where every available inch is filled with something to stimulate the eye. In most plays, this is hard to achieve.
But here the stage is like an artist's canvas, every corner of which tingles with delight. The show has a few dull spots - sometimes after we've recognized a "celebrity," we have to listen to his or her song without a great deal happening. But for the most part, the show is well-paced and full of surprises.
"In just a flash you'll be a child," the opening song promises. The evening makes good on that promise.
How much of a good thing can you take? Now I suspect that "A Little Like Magic," which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, is primarily aimed at children, who have an infinite capacity for taking practically anything.
But it must be said up front that this "black light" show is fundamentally a one-joke, as it were, evening. The law of diminishing returns is almost as inexorable as that experienced in eating a box of candy.
I was personally reminded of one of those fantastic Dutch fairground organs - those baroque-decorated wonders that make great noises and do funny things.
You watch enchanted - for a while. Then you realize that the great noises and the funny things do not vary. Neither does the evening at the Lyceum Theater.
The Toronto-based company, Famous People Players, has been founded and organized by Diane Lynn Dupuy.
The idea is to manipulate life-size fluorescent puppets and their accessories under ultraviolet light. The people doing the extraordinarily adroit manipulating are dressed totally in black.
And the results - a mixture of fantasy, caricature, and imitation - are, indeed, a little like magic.
The company resembles in technique the world-famous "Black Theater of Prague," but struck me as being artistically less sophisticated while professionally more adroit.
During the whole evening of cheerful music, ranging from classic to rock to Broadway, the life-size celebrity puppets, like Liberace, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers, Michael Jackson, and Liza Minnelli, and the objects, from giant boots clumping their way through "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to devils disporting one wild night on a bare mountain, are worked with uncanny skill.
The short evening may, for some, wear thin before the end, but no praise is too high for the visual art effects of Mary C. Thornton, the lighting by Ken Billington, the dazzling expertise of the unseen performers.
The ectoplasm that bounces about the Stygian-black stage of the Lyceum Theater is all man-made, although not until the very end of ''A Little Like Magic'' do you see a full, normal human being. This puppet show, which opened yesterday, is something the like of which you may never have seen. It comes to us from Canada, the home of the puppet troupe Famous People Players.
Here are a pair of dancing feet, a hat and hands - identifiably human but disembodied. Now the insistently pervasive music shifts to Liberace, and a very large Liberace - a caricature - pounds a piano that is also a caricature. It all emerges from the dark. There are mammoth chickens sawing fiddles to a Celtic tune, and scenery of a desolate sort floats in as the backdrop for the enactment of ''The Sorcerer's Apprentice.'' Now our attention is riveted by country singers and rock stars as well as animals struggling to the death to the strains of Mussorgsky.
Black light is the secret of this viewer-friendly, iridescent spectacle that drenches the senses in sight and sound for almost two hours. It is something for the kids and also for grown-ups, the sort who enjoy a night off from entertainment that the audience has to work at.
''Magic'' is clever, colorful and cute. The colors are loud and so is the music. Sometimes, it feels as though you are sitting through some gigantic music video, with the selections ranging from Saint-Saens to Kenny Rogers by way of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George M. Cohan and Stevie Wonder. For all the diversity of melody, the effect is still more a la Disney than Carnegie Hall. Everything has a kind of Technicolor brightness, the music as well as the puppets - and the show, conceived and directed by Diane Lynn Dupuy, is attractively inventive.
The black void that is the background makes the painted objects appear even more vivid than they would otherwise. Dinosaur skeletons, birds, shoes - everything assumes a comic, sprightly air. The finale, a rousing medley of Broadway songs, is followed by a genial curtain call that lets the audience in on how the whole thing is put together.
There are times that ''A Little Like Magic'' does seem like magic: the magic of theater, the magic of diversion, the magic that impels one to say, ''That's entertainment.''