note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Beverly Creasey
Plays about speech, free and otherwise, are popping up all over town. (See Theater Mirror review of HAYMARKET) Children are in for a treat at the Wheelock Family Theatre. Their magical production of Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH will teach them about inspiration, expectations and the power of speech---and they won’t even suspect there’s a lesson in the happy musical. I attended a matinee packed with school children delivered in ten big yellow school buses. Not one child fussed of fidgeted during the show.
Juster’s Wizard of Oz-inspired musical (with songs by Sheldon Harnick and Arnold Black) takes a lonely boy on a wild journey of discovery and when his adventures are over, he learns that there’s no place like home. Instead of flying monkeys, Milo (Tristan Viner-Brown) meets creepy stegosaurus monsters (in highly imaginative costumes by Marian Piro and Matthew Lazure)…and instead of a wizard behind a curtain, Milo is sent on his tasks by a talking Toll booth, but the sentiment is the same.
When Milo travels to “the world beyond” he meets a “whether man” with an umbrella and choices, cheekily portrayed by Gary Thomas Ng. Milo is accompanied, of course, by a dog…actually a watch dog ( a charming critter with a large pocket watch) named Tock. (No ticks although he was scratching his ears a bit!)
The intrepid doggie is Ricardo Engermann in yet another animal role at Wheelock. Engermann could animate a phonebook, he’s so joyful to watch, whether he’s leaping tall buildings in a single bound or sniffing out the competition.
Milo encounters two warring princes, arguing over the power of words versus the power of numbers. Chip Phillips, who plays a passel of eccentric characters as well as the prince of language and Brian Robinson (doing a fab wicked witch of the west turn) discover, with Milo’s help, that neither can function without Rhyme (Karen Q. Clark) and Reason (Lisa Korak), a nifty lesson for adults and children alike.
Gamalia Pharms does a spiffy stand-up comic shtick as the “Senses Taker”and Grace Napier leads an army of demons to undercut poor Milo’s determination in James Byrnes’ jaunty production. Jonathan Goldberg keeps the lighthearted music zipping along, making the musical a delight for young and old.