OREM — “Many things are possible as long as you believe they’re not impossible.”
That’s one of the lessons of The Phantom Tollbooth, an adaptation of the Norton Juster novel of the same name. The play tells the story of Milo, a boy full of malaise and boredom, who discovers a phantom tollbooth in his bedroom. When he decides do drive his toy car through it, Milo enters a fantastical world with inhabitants like a talking dog, a mathemagician, demons, and miners who drink subtraction stew. Along the way, Milo learns lessons about the importance of academics and of going out to experience the world.
The play is structured like a medieval morality play. Milo is an Everychild who goes through an allegorical adventure of self-discovery that culminates in defeating demons (like insincerity) in order to become a better person. It is not a typical dramatic structure in modern theatre that is interesting to see in a modern, secular tale, but it takes some time to get used to actors playing symbols instead of full-fledged characters.
Kevin Bigler plays Milo as an affable child, establishing quickly the mopey, apathetic personality of the character in “Another Boring Afternoon.” Bigler gradually kicks energy and excitement into Milo, and the growth that the character experiences is organic and natural. By the end, Milo is a changed boy, and it is satisfying to watch Bigler’s enthusiasm in the closing scenes as Milo rushes to rescue Rhyme and Reason.
Kelly Coombs played Tock, a talking watchdog who serves as Milo’s mentor and teacher. Tock was my 6-year-old son’s favorite character, and there is no mystery why. Coombs has the energy of a puppy and the adorable bark to match. Coombs found the perfect blend of dog and human mannerisms, and I chuckled at Tock’s excitement when it was time to start digging for numbers.
The other five members of the cast play a variety of roles, with Abrin Tinney as the Advisor being a crowd pleaser, due to his goofy manner of speech and his clowning. Tinney also was memorable as the world’s shortest giant/tallest midget/thinnest fat man/fattest thin man. The smarmy way he introduced himself each time and the embarrasment of admitting to Milo that he was really just the same person four times was a treat in the first act. I also enjoyed Tanner Perkins‘s seriousness and approachable dignity as the mathemagician.
Director David Paul Smith takes the job of building a production for children seriously. His actors treat the simple dialogue of Norton Juster and Sheldon Harnick‘s script with total seriousness. This is not a production where the actors are phoning it in just because the audience is children who lack discriminating tastes. Smith has a disciplined cast who give their full effort in performing even shallow bit parts. Smith also served as choreographer, and the zombie-like effort of “The Lethargarian Shuffle” or the Stomp!-inspired dance break of “Subtraction Stew” were clever kinetic moments that easily held children’s attention.
The show clips along quickly, but some care in staging some moments could have improved understanding. My son was confused about the nature of the tollbooth (and the fantasy world it led to). What seems obvious to adults—that Milo spends most of the story in a fantasy land—is not clear to young children. The idea that the stage can represent, at different times, reality and a fantasy world is too abstract of a concept for young children to grasp. A more noticeable change in lighting and scenery from Milo’s room to the fantasy land might have made this clearer.
Still, my 6-year-old enjoyed The Phantom Tollbooth, and I think most children between 6 and 10 will too. Parents will not find much meat in it (especially in Arnold Black’s music and Harnick’s lyrics, both of which are as forgettable as yesterday’s breakfast), but it is a pleasant event offering nostalgia and a brief outing with the kids (57 minutes, not counting the unnecessary intermission). Plus, it beats watching Frozen again.