OREM — In a conversation with a playwright, I once asked how he responded to people seeing his work. His response was that an audience loving it or hating it was an indication that something happened in the play that made audience members react. In the playwright’s estimation, the worst thing that could be said about a play was that it was “fine.” Art that is “fine” is forgettable and not worth discussing afterwards. Hale Centre Theater Orem’s production of Spookley the Square Pumpkin has some elements I loved and some elements I hated. But in the end, this was just a fine show.
On the surface, I can see the appeal of producing Spookley the Square Pumpkin. Based on a relatively well known children’s movie, this is an adaptation was developed by Joe Troiano (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Jeffrey Zahn (who composed the music) at First Stage, a premier theatre for young audiences (TYA) company based in Milwaukee. Spookley The Square Pumpkin is a squeaky clean and seasonally appropriate story that centers on acceptance and kindness.
But the script, a poorly written stage adaptation of a movie that has an IMDb rating of below 5.0, has little or no story or character depth, and a conclusion that makes about as much sense as the ending to Cats. It has songs that are circular and repetitive in a way that is mind-numbing to adults and disengaging for children. It is also riddled with humor — such as spiders named Edgar, Allen, and Poe saying that they are “in web development” — which earns a mild chuckle from adults and goes right over the heads of the intended audience. The script requires a herculean effort in all other elements of production to make Spookley the Square Pumpkin into an enjoyable show. And only some of those production elements in this production met the challenge.
I love the intimate space at Hale Center Theater Orem, and the company’s artists made the theater into a beautiful and engaging venue. The scenic design of Cole McClure and Bobby Swenson was expertly planned and executed. Vivid video screens of farms and stormy nights shown behind tangible set pieces created a dynamic and engaging space for the story to happen in. The set was so picturesque that I wanted to take a picture of my kids on it. I particularly loved the lightning sequence during the shows climactic scene where Spookley saves all of the other vegetation. As a bonus, the lightning sequence seemed to be a sensory friendly experience which young audiences and those with sensory needs could enjoy. These sequences were part of a visually pleasing display by lighting designer Ryan Fallis.
I was also impressed by the animated style of makeup created by Erin Jones and Lexi Rogers. TYA productions often lean heavily on highly expressive facial expressions and caricatured presentations of the characters. The design of makeup designers understood the task before them and brought a cartoon pumpkin to life on the face of a human being in an impressive manner.
Unfortunately, that is where the magic of the show ended. While Jones and Rogers absolutely nailed the makeup designs, their costume designs were solid but not spectacular. I liked the addition of straw around the scarecrows, and the uniformity of design. The pumpkins were simple and straightforward, but did not reach the level of artistry of the makeup or set.
The sound mixing also caused trouble through the performance. Microphones would cut in and out, and the volume levels never seemed to totally mesh between performers and soundtrack. Sounds issues like these have a tendency to get worked out during a play’s run, but it was still distracting on opening night. McClure, who designed the sound as well as the set, also had to deal with songs that I would want out of my head as soon as possible.
The acting of the characters was also a deficiency of the production, and I wondered at times what the direction from Lisa Hall entailed. The characters often had vapid expressions and a grating voice that resembled Mayor Humdinger from Paw Patrol. Ian Webb‘s portrayal of Spookley did not stir any feelings of sympathy for his plight, and his emotional range consisted of dejected and elated, with no in-between. Similarly, Richie Trimble and Joseph Paul Branca, who played the stories leading antagonists Big Tom and Little Tom (respectively), were zealously unkind and still boring. Strong acting in TYA uplifts and empowers young audiences to think and notice things. The acting in Spookley the Square Pumpkin was forced and left little time for audiences to grasp what shallow depth the story had.
This is not to say that the actors did a bad job. I think they did as they were directed to, and there were some successful moments. Kelsey Phillips Harrison had dynamic and lively choreography that lifted the production a great deal. Not only was the dancing strongly designed, it was well executed by actors who were clearly invested in it. Kiley Todd Drake, who played Bobo Transylvania, danced magnificently. The movement from Drake and the rest of the cast was crisp, clean, and utilized the intimate space well, including times when young audience members were invited to participate on stage. The lightning sequence included actors inviting audience members to shake gold pompoms in time with the storm. While the moment was rushed, it was still fun to watch kids participate in the show. It was these physical choices that carried the show strongly to the end.
Ultimately, my greatest disappointment in Spookley the Square Pumpkin is that adults may leave left thinking, “Well, that’s what you get with children’s theatre.” TYA is a theatrical genre aimed to both educate and entertain. By its very nature, strong TYA productions are an experience both before, during, and after the show. While the production was beautifully designed and the dancing was high energy and playful, everything else left something to be desired. Unfortunately, a weak script that condescend to young audiences and patronized adults could not be fully salvaged by the talented designers and actors at HCTO. This production of Spookley the Square Pumpkin left a bad taste in my mouth, and it would not be my “Pick of the Patch.” It is not even the best pumpkin-centered play I have seen this month.