Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Phantom Tollbooth"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


adapted from the novel by Norton Juster
book by Norton Juster and Sheldon Harnick
lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
music by Arnold Black

directed and designed by James P. Byrne
choreographed by Laurel Stachowicz musical direction by Jonathan Goldberg

Milo … Tristan Viner-Brown
Tock … Ricardo Engermann
King Azaz … Chip Phillips
The Mathemagician … Brian Robinson
Princess of Rhyme … Karen Q. Clark
Princess of Reason … Angela Williams
The Whether Man … Gary Thomas Ng
The Giant/Midget … Chip Phillips
The Terrible Trivium … Harold Withee
The Demon of Insincerity … Grace Napier
The Senses Taker … Gamalia Pharms

Demons: Andrew Boza; Bikrum Chahal; Kiersten Cormack; Emma Feinberg; Stefano Fuchs; Kristie Grimes-Mallard; Lisa Korak; Jacob Liberman; Colette Perold; Jaclyn Sabogal

Advisors: Gary Thomas Ng; Christine Pardilla Reeds; Robert Rota; Janes Staab

Milo’s Friends and Princes: Jacob Brandt; Bikrum Chahal; Ben Duvall; Gilliam Mariner Gordon; David Kalm; Paul McCallion; Jenna Spencer; Sarah Wanger

Lethargarians, Citizens, Miners: Jacob Brandt; Bikrum Chahal; Ben Duvall; Kelly Fahey; Rachel Elizabeth Greene; David Kaim; Amada Kline; Beth Lebowitz; Paul McCallion; Megan Otteson; Robert Rota; Lauren Rudy; Jaclyn Sabogal; Jenna Spencer; Jesse Strachman; Sarah Wanger


Keyboards/Conductor … Jonathan Goldberg
Flute … Amy Jackson
Oboe … Lisa Hudson or Chisato Harada
Clarinet … Ray Taranto or Paul Hartley
Bassoon … Louis Toth or Sally Merriman
Horn … Ami Fields or Nancy-Lee Mauger
Bass … Matt Ambrose or Rob Orr
Percussion … Mick Lewander

Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH will have closed by the time you read this; suffice it to say that it delightfully kicked off the holiday season. Co-adapting his beloved children’s classic for the musical stage, Norton Juster thins his character ranks but leaves the basic plotline intact: Milo, a bored, listless lad who hates to think about anything, enters a fantasy world of thought and anti-thought via a magical tollbooth deposited in his bedroom; with the help of Tock the Watchdog, Milo rescues the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from exile, bringing peace to the warring kingdoms of Dictionopolis (words) and Digitopolis (numbers) --- he returns home, his own sense of wonder and delight awakened. Mr. Juster’s tale is nearly a half-century old but has never been timelier when “the Dumbing of America” is no longer just a catchphrase and the Demons of Ignorance have caused many a young mind to shut down. What reads as a child’s PILGRIM’S PROGESS plays onstage as a contemporary WIZARD OF OZ, which is not a bad thing considering the book is all brain and no heart, and Sheldon Harnick and Arnold Black’s kaleidoscopic score sparkles in Broadway’s brightest hues; their inventiveness may not hit you until afterwards when you look back and realize that very little happened, scenery-wise, on the Wheelock stage --- the constant shifts and changes are all in the whirling, swirling music….

Tristan Viner-Brown was an impressive-enough Milo, awkward but not self-consciously so, and sang his numbers in a soaring treble tone (Milo has the closest thing to a hit tune, “Do I Dare?” where he contemplates undertaking his dangerous quest; Master Viner-Brown reaped cheers with his rendition). Twice I’ve seen Ricardo Engermann play conservative gentlemen who turned the hearts and heads of two older women (played by the same actress); it was a nice change to see him play a fantastical critter --- his Tock didn’t resemble any dog I’ve seen from here to there (a pair of floppy ears would have helped) but Mr. Engermann clearly enjoyed being the evening’s scene-stealer with all his mugging, howling and snuffling (he did a breathtaking double-somersault in the air, landing catlike, one level down, in a crouched position). To continue the canine-isms, what I’ve seen of Chip Phillips in the past reminds me of a puppy about to wet the rug --- here, his plugged-in technique is ideal for children’s theatre: his King Azaz was all pop-up cardboard, glitter and ham --- and enjoyably so; Brian Robinson had little opportunity to unlock his glorious baritone, one of the best in town; his flamboyant Mathemagician was a hop, skip and a jump to the dayglo Land of Camp. Nearly matching Mr. Robinson in outrageousness was Gamalia Pharms as the Senses Taker, who was such fun that I regret Messrs. Harnick and Black not giving the character a rafters-shaking solo of her own.

James P. Byrne directed and designed this TOLLBOOTH simply and sweetly; his gift for bringing out the child in his adults and the trouper in his children is mirrored in his productions for the Gold Dust Orphans who are, at heart, a bunch of kids in Mommy’s clothes. Laurel Stachowicz supplied the clever footwork and gestures that made many a non-dancer look good and Marian Piro and Matthew Lazure designed the colorful costumes (no doubt, on a budget) --- the nasty, slobbering Demons, in particular, resembled spiked lizards en route to ballet class. Overall, a most enjoyable evening for all ages --- the proof lay in the many children in the audience sitting through two acts in rapt silence. I cannot say how many of them will have a Milo-like conversion as a result, but the magic of theatre has its own seductive pull; I’ve been in its grip for most of my life and it hasn’t lost its power, yet.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" (31 October-30 November)
180 The Riverway, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 879-2300

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide