Sunday, January 15, 2017

THE PHANTOM TOLL BOTH not all it could be at Ensemble

Much like Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ, Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH is a fantasy adventure.  All three are perceived as tales for children, but, in reality, though they are intended to teach youngsters, the messages are often so complex that they go over the heads of their intended audience.

All three have been reformatted as plays.  A version of THE PHANTOM TOOL BOOTH is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

Juster’s tale centers on Milo, a young boy who is both bored and creative.  He “receives” a magic toy toll booth one day, which sets his imagination off.  He conjures up a story of driving his toy car into the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is experiencing troubled times.  The problems center on exiling the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air due to a conflict between believers in math being the most important communication tool and those who believe that words are most relevant. 

Milo, along with his sidekicks Tock, his faithful dog, and Humbug, a maker of improbable tales, traverse the dangers to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom and restore order to the land.

In the process, of course, Milo applies all that he has learned in school, realizes the value of knowing about language and numbers, the importance of reasoning to reasonable conclusions, and to love life and not be bored.

Children’s theatre is hard to stage.  Though they often have great imaginations, youngsters also have short attention spans and a strong need for exciting stimuli.  Holding attention has become even more difficult in this age of electronics as very young people are visually stimulated with I-pads, computers, fantastic movies and vivid television.

Ensemble’s THE PHANTOM TOOL BOOTH, an adaptation by Susan Nanus, under the direction of Brittni Shambaugh Addison, puts out full efforts, but fails to command attention.  It lacks the necessary joyous spontaneity needed to make the fantasy aspects spark to life.

Part of the problem is the general aura of the staging.  Though creative in many ways, there is a lack of physical slapstick, fun and frenzy.  The whole thing is just too serious.

The cast (Natalie Grace Sipula, Davion T. Brown, Andrew Keller, August Scarpelli, Evan Thompson, Kayla Davis, Derek Green, Samantha Cocco, Rose Scalish and Rebecca Moseley) is quite competent, but, they, like the stage action, generally just don’t let loose.  There appears to be a lack of understanding of the playfulness needed.  This is not HAMLET, it is MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, not DEATH OF A SALESMAN, but THE BOOK OF MORMON.

To the surprise of many, acting in a children’s play and getting it right is often more difficult than playing a great dramatic role.

Instead of acting, the rest of the cast needed to take the lead of Evan Thompson, who created in each of his characterization’s zany presence that elicited giggles and wonder.  He has a natural ability to grow characters into bigger than life beings.  This is hard to do.  It’s often beyond the abilities of most actors.  It takes the talent of a Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, or Lucille Ball to pull this off well.  His multi-faceted Dodecahedron was a feat of comic timing, and visual presence, as was his Spelling Bee.

As one little tyke, at intermission, asked her father the night I saw the show, “Why was the boy a girl?,” in referring to Milo.  The father couldn’t answer the question, and neither can I.

The visual image would have been enhanced by the use of the book’s original Jules Feiffer cartoons being projected onto the back walls.  

A talkback with children in the audience being brought onto stage and sitting with the members of the cast, and an educator leading them in a discussion of the relevance of learning and other morals of the play would also have added to the experience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble Theatre should be commended for bringing live children’s theater to an audience.  There are far too few opportunities for youngsters to be exposed to the theatrical arts.  Though not a totally effective production, there is enough positive about THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH to encourage parents to bring their children and, hopefully, then discuss the implications of the script with them.

THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH, which runs 85 minutes with a ten-minute intermission, runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm and Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through January 22, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Ensemble’s next staged production is August Wilson’s RADIO GOLF!, the final installment in the writer’s ten-play Pittsburgh cycle.

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