SOUTH SALT LAKE — Busytown is the kind of rare kid’s show that both adults and young’uns can enjoy equally. With high-quality music, great acting, and an avalanche of laughs, heck, even moody teenagers might crack a grin.
Based on the classic animated storybooks by Richard Scarry, Busytown is the story of a curious cat named Huckle who longs to know what everyone in his town does all day. The story follows him as he pals around with firefighters, postal workers, pirates, and construction workers. The musical was written by Kevin Kling and debuted at the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 2007. In the 10 years since, it’s been staged by just about every children’s theater in the English-speaking world (including the Utah Children’s Theatre in 2010), and for good reason: it’s delightful, witty, fun, and just about every good adjective out there. In the hands of the actors at Utah Children’s Theatre (who are adults, by the way), Busytown is also funny. Really funny. Like, crowd-pleasing belly-laughs funny.
The small cast consists of Huckle (played by Rick Jones) and his friend Lowly Worm (played by Tennessee Tarrant), with the rest of the actors playing multiple roles. Jones is tremendous as Huckle, filling the role with optimism and wholesome pluckiness. His tumbling skills were also a fun in-character surprise, and his outfit (lederhosen, shorts and striped socks by costumer designer Julie Anderson) was adorable. The Utah Children’s Theatre’s production (directed by Jennifer Hohl, who also helmed the 2010 run) is unique in that it uses an actor to play Lowly Worm instead of a puppet. Tarrant was great fun in the mute role, which included a good amount of physical comedy, especially when he found out what it feels like to be a letter in the postal service.
Spencer J. Hohl was brilliant in multiple roles, and won laughs all night long. The last time I saw him onstage was as a teenager in the 2010 production, and it was delightful to see his growth into a professional-quality actor in one of the best comedic performances I’ve seen in a while. The way he slipped effortlessly between characters from scene to scene was a wonder. His take on a train conductor who whistles while he talks (think Gopher from Winnie the Pooh) was a hoot, and his Latin lover interpretation for Able Baker Charlie was practically unforgettable. (I was just waiting for him to go Salt Bae on that flour). His commitment, skill and confidence on the stage were remarkable.
Jana Cox and Michelle Blake returned from the 2010 production as well, in their same roles. Cox was perfectly tenacious as Blacksmith Fox and Grandma Bear, and her Jason the Mason almost made me fall out of my chair (“Jason the Mason is chasing a dream!”). Blake was appropriately warm and motherly as Huck’s mom, Grocer Cat, and a fine G-rated telenovela nurse. I also enjoyed watching her in the group sequences, particularly the train song. That woman really knows how to sell a train song.
The excellent score by Michael Koerner is musically interesting enough for adults to appreciate, but enjoyable and understandable for kids. Most of the songs use 1950’s pop as their backbone, and the lyrics are uniformly fabulous. “He’s not a bookish worm,” the nurse croons of Lowly, “You couldn’t call him a hookish worm.” My favorite moment of the night, though, was Jasmine Hohl’s musical number as Betsy Bear writing her grandma a letter. Her cute correspondence was a simple, pure moment of absolute adorableness. And I loved how it contrasted Huckle’s more bombastic letter-writing sequence. (“I’m gonna write grandma a letter! Write her all night long!”)
In a stroke of sheer child-pleasing genius, the show also featured a flotilla of motorized vehicles onstage. There’s Lowly’s apple car, a gorilla’s banana-mobile and (of course) the famous pickle car, which gets one of the best songs of the night (“Pickle car! Pickle car! Park it in a pickle jar!”). Prop designer/stage manager Larissa Anderson deserves an ovation for those babies.
While the production is wonderful, a few things could improve future performances. There were a bunch of dropped props, missed throws, and cars running into things, and the spotlight crew missed Able Baker Charlie’s big entrance. I think the tech team could also punch up Huckle’s rock ‘n’ roll moment: a few lighting effects and a bit more volume could do a lot. The farm animal and homebuilding props were also too small for the entire audience to see. On the acting side, David Weeks is clearly a fine actor (a great Bananas Gorilla) and delivered some fun asides to the audience. However, the night I saw the show, his voice really struggled. I’m told he had laryngitis, so hat’s off to him for toughing through it, though it’s puzzling that the theater didn’t use the double-cast Michael Hohl instead.
Overall though, Busytown is practically perfect children’s entertainment that parents will enjoy just as much as their kids. I completely agree with my six-year old niece’s review, “I just really, really, loved, loved, loved it!”
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