Friday, January 16, 2009

Cute ‘Phantom Tollbooth’ full of wordplay

Published in The News Tribune,Jan. 16, 2009

Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater is staging “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a cute play that I suspect may be over the heads of many of the younger viewers unless they have already read the book and talked about it with their parents. That’s because the humor is sophisticated for children.

On the other hand, the book written by Norton Juster and illustrated by the great Jules Feiffer has been popular with children since its publication in 1961. As with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and other children’s books that make use of sophisticated adult wordplay, “Tollbooth” can be appreciated on many levels by adults and children.

I enjoyed the play, and the audience reaction on opening day was good.

My one big criticism is that Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater seems to have scrimped on the set, which was bare and cheap looking. Scenic artist Dori Conklin has done much better work.
If the sets appeared to be toss-offs, that was partially compensated for by lighting by John Chenault and costumes by Joan Schlegel. Even though the costumes and lighting were modest, they were quite enjoyable.

The ostensible theme of the play is the admonition to quit moping around and get out and do something, and the lessons learned are all about how humans often fail to communicate with one another. The humor comes from a slew of puns and other forms of wordplay, such as taking metaphorical language literally. Juster said the book was influenced by the Marx Brothers, which I can certainly see. I also suspect there was a lot of influence from Lewis Carroll.

Milo, a teenager played by young actor Justin Niedermeyer, is down in the dumps and bored half to death when a magic tollbooth appears through which he can travel to the kingdom of Wisdom (like Alice going down the rabbit hole; and whereas Alice takes one pill to make her big and another to make her small, Milo runs into the shortest giant in the world, who changes into the tallest midget, the fattest thin man and the thinnest fat man – all played by Kody Bringman).

The kingdom of Wisdom, where almost every name for a person or a place is a pun, is ruled by the feuding brothers Azaz (Charlie Long), who love words, and the Mathemagician (Andrew Fry), who loves numbers. Their sisters, Sweet Rhyme (Elizabeth Richmond) and Pure Reason (Grace Oberhofer), had been banished to a castle in the sky, and without Rhyme or Reason nothing in the land makes any sense anymore. Milo is recruited to rescue the princesses and return rhyme and reason to the kingdom of Wisdom.

Milo’s trusty helper in his quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason is Tock the Watchdog (Lucas Blum). They run into demons and a Humbug (Nan Gillis) and the Whether Man (Bringman), who doesn’t predict the weather but rather decides whether or not, a Spelling Bee (Kae Blum), a Senses Taker (Christine Riippi) and the obnoxious Dr. Dischord (Karen Christensen), who has big ears and loves loud noises.

Niedermeyer underplays Milo. He speaks quietly and sings nicely and rarely shows much emotion, all of which is appropriate for a boy who doesn’t want to do anything. Still, I wish he had put just a little more emotion into his role, perhaps parodying lethargy with broad yawns and drooping shoulders, as the ensemble does when they sing and dance with mock lethargy on the song “The Lethargarian Shuffle” in the Doldrums – one of the better song-and-dance numbers in the play.

Lucas Blum is delightfully playful as the Watchdog. His enthusiasm is contagious. And by the way, the giant clock he wears is set to Pacific Time and keeps right on time – a nice little touch.

Among the more entertaining and expressive characters are the three demons played by Christensen, Riippi and Kae Blum. They were a joy to watch. Also especially expressive was Gillis as the Humbug.

Finally, kudos to the entertaining music provided by Stephanie Claire, musical director and keyboard; David Lane, keyboard; and Barbara Burzynski, percussion.

The Phantom Tollbooth
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater at the Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
TICKETS: $15 adults; $13 seniors, students, military; $10 children 12 and younger
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867

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