note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
As first glance, Wheelock Family Theater’s production of “The Phantom Tollbooth” appears to be a vehicle for small children, until it detours into a richly clever, educational musical tool, peppered with author Norman Juster and multi-award winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s marvelous language.
Wheelock is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Massachusetts resident’s book, which was initially published in 1961 and won several awards. Now considered a classic, “The Phantom Tollbooth” universally appeals to all ages. It was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature film in 1969 and premiered as a musical play in 2003. It starred top-drawer performers, and Wheelock’s version is no exception.
This Boston star-studded cast trips through an imaginary tollbooth with bored young Milo, who thinks everything is a waste of time. Falling asleep in his bedroom, Milo meets his tour guide, Tock the Watchdog, who rescues him from the shadowy gray, indolent Doldrums. Together, they traverse the Land of Expectations, to the divided kingdom and Lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, then scale the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason, thus restoring peace and harmony.
Young Jeffrey Sewell as Milo, already a veteran performer on stage and YouTube, is amazingly professional, bolstered by a fantastic performance by Michael Wood as Tock. Although Wood’s costume is cuddly and cartoonish, his canine gestures and reactions are realistic.
Like Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in Oz, Milo, in his red toy electric car, and Tock, armed with his large alarm clock, encounter weird, strange creatures, including a Senses Taker and a Spelling Bee (comically portrayed by Jenna Lea Scott) and the Humbug (talented Mansur); the Whetherman (Andrew Oberstein) and Dr. Dischord (Wayne Fritsche); and dark, dreary Demons, who fiendishly try to mislead the two, including the lovely Aimee Doherty as the Demon of Insincerity and DeciBelle.
Versatile actor Robert Saoud unleashes his full comedic power, giving them the run-around as the thinnest Fat Man, Fattest Thin Man, Shortest Giant, Tallest Midget, and changes persona with the flipping of a sign on his tollbooth-size station- you get the point. Saoud is also the Terrible Trivium. Ceit Zweil narrates the duo’s fantasy trip and doubles as Digitopolis’ purple, multi-sided Dodecahedron.
Milo and Tock wander to Dictionopolis, where they meet Prince Azaz the Unabridged, (nicely portrayed by De’Lon Grant, who’s also the Voice of the Tollbooth), and cross the wasteland to Azaz’s feuding brother, the Mathemagician, King of Digitopolis, (effectively portrayed by Brian Richard Robinson). The brothers banished their beautiful sisters, Rhyme (lovely Kami Rushell Smith) and Reason (pretty Courtney Sullivan) to the Castle in the Air, leaving gaps and confusion in their lands.
Milo and Tock cross the dangerous divide between the two kingdoms and use their wit, wisdom, and a few magical gadgets to rescue the princesses.
This delightful cast and ensemble spill into the aisles, surrounding the audience, sweeping them into their fantasy journey of weirdos, words and numbers. Armed with Harnick’s clever, tongue-tripping lyrics, Juster’s gift with words, and Arnold Black’s music, they’re entrancing.
Although Matthew T. Lazure’s set is simple, Lisa Simpson’s costumes are creatively colorful, delighting youngsters. Roger J. Moore’s sound effects and Franklin Meissner Jr.s lighting enhance scenes, switching from ridiculous to sublime. However, Music Director Robert Rucinski on keyboard and his six musicians sound thin. Either way, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a charming flight into fantasy, where all generations find their own enjoyable pathway.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical adaptation of Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” book and lyrics by Juster and Sheldon Harnick, music by Arnold Black, appearing at The Wheelock Family Theater, 180 The Riverway, Boston. Directed by Jane Staab, performances are through Nov. 20, Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30,$25,$20; Friday night teen take-overs, $15. Call the Box Office at 617-879-2300 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the Web site at www.WheelockFamilyTheatre.org.