A kid will do anything to be a superhero. He’ll don a homemade mask of his favorite defender, cripple a sibling’s portrayal of a ruthless villain, and exercise every self-imposed power on household chores. Dish duty? Sam the Dish Man to the rescue! Garbage night? The Trashinator has arrived!
A new production at Theatre of Youth gives audiences a different kind of hero, in “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” based on books by Jeff Brown and Scott Nash. Stanley’s literary cred is a full franchise at this point, with books, an iPhone app and even a school curriculum – The Flat Stanley Project – that entices readership through a global pen pal program.
He’s also a musical, a fine production of which TOY capably handles. While the company’s cast does a serviceable job at bringing Stanley Lambchop to three-dimensional life, their material is often too flat to work with.
Timothy Allen McDonald’s adaptation doesn’t spring to life with quite the vitality that this boy’s story would have you think. Even in children’s theater, where exposition tends to take a while, it is not apparent when or why this story is being told. And though kids may not verbalize their criticism, that doesn’t mean they don’t notice when something isn’t doing it.
Still, there’s a fun time to be had, and children at a recent matinee were enjoying their storybook hero come to life.
What does Stanley want to be? Well when life gives him the ultimate lemon – when the bulletin board above his bed crashed down and flattens him – he makes the greatest lemonade. Given his slim new state, he packs up in an envelope and travels the globe in search of friends near and far. He goes to the Louvre and helps stop a robber from stealing a masterpiece. He goes to Hollywood, and falls for the alluring lights of show business. He makes time to visit an old friend from the neighborhood.
Stanley’s superpower, it turns out, despite all abilities of human flight and postal service fraud, is that of indifference. What’s next, a trip to Applebees? Stanley needs something meaningful to hold onto, a force to ground him, not the attractions on Hollywood and Vine. It’s wholesome in that way.
Adults will recognize this soul-searching tale from their young adulthood, when the Big Wide World felt too small to own, and too large to attempt. “Pippin,” “Candide,” “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars” – this is a tale as old as time. But Stanley’s version of it is too tame to feel like any risks are being taken, or any real gain is at stake. Perhaps if he felt more lost to begin with we’d understand his need to hop in a mailbox.
His eventual – spoiler alert – return home is safe and comfortable, but it’s also where a little boy should be in the first place. It’s too much about his room and not enough about his head.
All that aside, his adventures are far-reaching and his friends are supportive.
Christopher Quinn is our Stanley, and gives him sweet notes of curiosity and wonderment. His bedtime cape-and-flight charade has him hurling around his room like a carefree puppy.
Michael Zito plays, among other characters, Stanley’s brother, Arthur. It’s probably Zito’s particular punctuation alongside Quinn’s muted tone, but his Arthur is often played more invigorated by his own imagination. Zito’s other roles, as a foolhardy Dr. Dan and sly Hollywood agent, are similarly exuberant; we often wish for Quinn to match Zito’s enthusiasm, though his characterization is without flaw.
The sound in the Allendale Theatre is often an issue, especially in musicals, but it was a major concern here. It was often impossible to comprehend musical dialogue or singing; another detail that isn’t lost on young audiences.
Beth Donohue and Robert Insana are pitch-perfect as the boys’ parents, and other roles, too. Donohue harbors much of the ensemble’s pacing, playing to her little viewers with attention to articulation and clarity, and does it in the mom costume: pink capris and tight red hair.
Insana is befitting his bowtie as a quiet but steady father.
Kerrykate Abel is our trusty mailperson, delivering the Lambchops’ mail, which includes their son, with cheer and security. She’s a warm energy for audiences to hold onto, even when sound woes muffle her words.
That Stanley has so much joy around him is not discouraging; children should feel affection and love without caution.
Never mind that they barely appear concerned about their son’s desire to fly away, nor even anxious for his eventual return. But where Stanley’s plea for meaning in this obnoxiously pleasant existence is concerned, he might consider a quest more down to earth.
That, or a better bulletin board.
“The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley”
Three stars (Out of four)
Through June 2 in the Theatre of Youth, Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. Tickets are $24-$26. Call 884-4400 or visit theatreofyouth.org.