Jodee’s Childsplay’s The Grumpiest Boy in the World

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Boys and grumpiness are two things our family knows a bit about. Contrary to popular belief, boys have a lot of emotions and expressions. They can even be dramatic. (Gasp!) Without knowing much about the story, I was excited to see that Finegan Kruckemeyer’s The Grumpiest Boy in the World addressed the emotional self of boys. Something in the directness of the title had my kids interested and amused. They immediately dubbed the play “King Grump” and called it that for weeks before we even saw the show. Of course, boys don’t only feel degrees of anger, but that was a relatable start. Director Jon Gentry put together a vibrant, energetic show that explores a lot of big feelings, using big characters and big laughs, and a tiny cast with minimal costumes and set pieces.

The narrative is about Zachary, an ordinary 9-year-old boy with a terrible problem–he feels that his “normal” is killing him. He imagines himself the scientific example of everything extraordinarily dull and soon determines he must discover a place where he is different. His plan is to go the the most outrageously odd place in the world (of his imagination) where he would be the only person of his kind. He embarks on this adventure and finds, to his frustration, that no matter how curious the characters he meets, he strangely shares things in common with them.

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Though it was opening day on the Studio stage of the Tempe Center for the Arts, we were actually seeing a performance polished over months of playing at schools around Arizona. The entire set was designed to fit in a large van. This simplicity made the set even more like a child’s imaginative play space. A single backdrop with pictures reminiscent of vintage circus posters looked a bit like a famous sideshow. When props began appearing through the flap in the middle, I no longer noticed the pictures; the colors, costumes and characters took center stage. As Zachary travels, each place was built with simple set pieces, like chairs, stools, coat racks and a trunk.

The show opens with physical comedy by the lively Bobby Shook (Dad/Scientist 2/Other).  His routine is part of setting the stage, which was cleverly accomplished. The Childsplay productions we have seen have all used amusing physical theatre to engage the audience. It works to capture my children’s attention every time. My family, along with all the other audience members around me, were laughing from shortly after the lights went up.

With so many characters to be and places to go, Shook and the hilarious Caroline Wagner (Mum/Scientist 1/Other) were constantly in motion, changing costumes and scenes. They used a variety of colorful voices and movement. My youngest really loved the Voice of Impending Doom character and thought that was the funniest part of the show. Another favorite was the boyish Tony Latham as Zachary. My boys easily identified with the “big feelings” (as we call them at home) that seemed to fill Latham’s whole frame.

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Inventive use of puppetry and costuming by Elizabeth Ihlenfeld multiplied a cast of three into a colorful assortment of characters. Most of our questions were about the costumes that identified the roles. The cast was kind enough to explain details of the larger costumes during the after-show Q & A.

With so many performances previous, I was not surprised that the 45-minute show went off without a noticeable hitch. Maybe the Giant had to advance the sound cue twice on the laptop, but Shook is so interesting to watch, the action could have been part of the comedy. Stephen Christensen’s sound design, accessed by an onstage laptop, worked well and is certainly economical with space.

While I think the message was about finding what make us different, it was also about the commonalities that we use to better relate to others. Some of the things we share are emotions and desires that are familiar to all kinds of people, be they Hairy, Giant, or exceedingly grumpy.  Zachary’s common ground with others helped him make friends, who later aided him in his pursuit of his goal to be the ultimate in grumpiness.

I recognized the familiar narrative of adventure and discvery, where the hero realizes important things about himself in the process of telling his elaborate expedition. It was a little reminiscent of Max’s voyage in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. One of my boys came home ready to write his stories. The show’s storytelling inspiration might just be a tool to help him learn more about his own strengths.

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The show was an enjoyable family experience, from before the show with the 360° Experience and as we laughed while sharing our favorite parts on the drive home.  After all of the fun, I came away feeling that when we focus on telling stories about our lives and dreams, we can see the patterns that reveal our unique traits. I hope my kids get that, too.

My family was generously provided tickets in return for a review. The opinions expressed are entirely those of myself and my family.

“Make no mistake there is a lot packed into this show.” – Family Blogger Julie

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Do you remember the world(s) you created in your childhood bedroom? I had a play kitchen that was my own kitchen in my own house. I made my mother knock before entering my “house” for a while. During my parent’s divorce, I once arranged my blankets into a big nest, like Big Bird had on Sesame Street.

Then there was the period when I categorized my stuffed animals according to species. Why did no one notice I might be a little “too organized” for a child? Truth is parents are busy and distracted, even when their children are hurting. Watching Interrupting Vanessa I cringed a little when Vanessa mimics her mom being too busy to indulge her daughter’s imaginative play.  I cringed a lot when Vanessa’s mom calls her treasures, “a pile of junk.” I resolved immediately to lift my head when my children are speaking to me. I will endeavor not to make a fuss over the piles of Legos that cover the floor in my son’s room or the heaps of doll clothes on my daughter’s floor.

Vanessa’s room lets us into her mind. Her dad is there, just hanging out, reading the paper, and telling jokes, just as he used to do before he died a year ago. Since that time, Vanessa has withdrawn into the safety of her room and her imagination. Inside her room is everything she needs: costumes and props she uses to embellish her fanciful stories, experiments and inventions, and even a forbidden chocolate cupcake.

When Vanessa’s mom invites Timmy Fibbins over for a playdate Vanessa’s comfortable existence is set on edge. Timmy is the awkward kid you remember from your own school days. Today we might wonder if he is on the autism spectrum.

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I have shared many Childsplay performances with my children. One of the things I like best is that productions are multi-layered. Young children always enjoy the zany antics and colorful costumes of the characters on stage.  Depending on age and maturity, some will notice deeper themes. Childsplay productions are always thought provoking for the adults in the audience.  Make sure to grab a copy Questions for the Ride Home at the end of the show. This is a great way to help everyone explore the show on a deeper level.

Interrupting Vanessa is a short play; running time is less than one hour. Make no mistake there is a lot packed into this show. The talented cast conveys themes of loss, friendship, and being different. As with all productions at Childsplay, there is a short Q&A at the end. Fortunately, for us, the Prop Master and the Director were in the audience providing extra insight into all the components of a successful show. My 11 year old really liked Interrupting Vanessa. He made a beeline for the stage at the end when the audience is welcome up to meet the cast. I looked up to see that he had pulled one of his own treasures out of his pocket to show the cast: a Lego mini-figure. The next time I peer into his room, I will wonder what sort of wondrous world he is imagining in there.

BY: Family2Family Blogger, Julie

 

“…if the purpose of theater is to make you feel then The Yellow Boat accomplished that.”

There’s a notion that we choose our parents. As The Yellow Boat begins, the audience witnesses Benjamin (Rudy Ramirez) choose his parents (Katie McFadzen and Kyle Sorrell). It’s easy to see why; he chooses two solid, loving ones who lavish attention on their only child, fully embracing his active imagination and artistic gift.

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I took my husband, Dave, and our children Landen (10) and Caroline (8) to see The Yellow Boat yesterday. Recommended for ages 7+, the audience was decidedly adult, likely, because this was heavier fare than the productions we expect from Childsplay. I did not share the subject matter of The Yellow Boat with my family ahead of time.

Both children enjoyed the early scenes highlighting Benjamin’s high energy and creative spirit. At one point Landen leaned over and said, “I like this.”

Early on, we learn that Benjamin was born with hemophilia. We witness his parents try to maintain normalcy for their child while protecting him. Most parents can relate to the comical scene where Benjamin’s parents seek out the best school for him.

Concern sets in, as Benjamin is increasingly fatigued. No one knows why and poor Benjamin is subjected to a battery of tests and an array of pokes and prodding. The audience and Benjamin’s parents soon learn that Benjamin tests positive for the virus that causes AIDS. Set in the early 1980’s, a time we knew little about AIDS and fear was at an all-time high. Abandoned by their friends, the trio becomes isolated and Benjamin withdraws. His frightened mother forbids Eddy, Benjamin’s best friend, from seeing him. Soon school is a distant memory and Benjamin spends his days and nights confined to a hospital bed while doctors search for a cure.

The one bright spot being the aptly named, Joy (Debra K. Stevens), who is not a medical doctor but the Wellness Specialist tasked with finding “the part that works.” This role struck me as a part Robin Williams would have relished. Stevens indeed brought joy to the stage and to Benjamin with her backpack full of tricks designed to help her patients process their feelings.

As Benjamin’s condition worsens, you can’t help but imagine yourself or your child in a similar position. At this point, Landen leaned over and said, “I hate this.”

The aforementioned Eddy eventually does come to the hospital. He is full of questions. Are you afraid? Are you in pain? Do you cry? What’s it like to know? He asks the questions we all have surrounding death.

As The Yellow Boat sets sail, you can hear the sniffles in the audience. As the play ends, the actors come to the front of the stage and a few have misty eyes. One can’t help but feel the impact of this story of love and life and death.

As we exited, Caroline said, “I almost cried because I think he died.” I told her he had indeed died and we all commented on how sad that was. My children are too young to know what AIDS is, Landen asked and we told him in the car. Dave led the kids in a conversation about the different kinds of theater experiences. We all agreed we liked musicals better but if the purpose of theater is to make you feel then The Yellow Boat accomplished that. As Dave said, “it was life.”

The Cat in the Hat knows A LOT about… Entertainment!

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We arrived at the beautiful Tempe Center for the Arts on a day much like the day in the story…gloomy! But also like in the story, the rain did not keep our fun away.

We started in the First Things First pre-show area. We made up poems and took pictures before entering the theatre. These two 4th graders and the adults they came with were well versed in the story that was about to be brought to life and ready for fun!

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The set and costumes were a perfect depiction of the book! The kids even noticed. One of them said to me, “I love how they made their clothes look just like they drew it in the book! That was so cool!” The other said about the set, “Wow! It is like the book opened up and we are sitting right in it!” That is big praise from little boys!

We have been to many plays at Childsplay. It is always fun when the play starts and my son gets very excited when he recognizes the actors. “Momma! The Fish is Junie B. Jones! The Cat is from Frog and Toad and he played Templeton in Charlotte’s Web too!” However, within moments, their talents magically transform them to the characters they are currently playing, and the current characters are all that we see before us for the rest of the play.

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The play is about imagination.  The sound effects and set are used in creative ways that make you imagine what is occurring.  Yet, even the youngest audience members understood the nuances of all that was happening.  It was extremely well done.

The story line from The Cat in the Hat was followed fairly literally.  That made it even more exciting for the children, as they were waiting with anticipation for what they knew was going to happen…The Cat was going to show up any moment with Thing 1 and Thing 2 and create hilarious havoc in the house.  What we did not know was HOW they were going to accomplish this.  Their “How” was wonderful!

The Girl (Shannon Phelps) and Boy (Drew Swaine) with their pet Fish (Katie Haas) are bored when stuck inside on a rainy day. They have nothing to do while their mother is out to the store.  Bored, until the Cat (Jon Gentry) entered the scene and showed them that as long as they have their imaginations, life can always be as exciting as they choose to make it. Havoc and hilarity ensued as the Cat brought his pals Thing 1 (Alan Khoutakoun) and Thing 2 (Jenny Hintze) to further spice things up.

A favorite scene incorporated all parts of the play to make it wonderfully memorable.  The set, props, actors, costumes, music, lighting etc. all were used in such a manner that made this scene stand out.  Cat was doing a balancing act – on a ball – with a cup, a cake, 3 books, milk, a toy ship, a rake, FISH and more.  All the characters were helping (or being held hostage) and when Cat ultimately fell down, the S-L-O-W motion fall scene was hilarious!

At the end of each Childsplay performance, the cast members ask questions to the audience members and allow the audience members to ask questions to them.  My son was called on to ask a question and his question was about this scene. He wanted to know how all of those items stayed up on the Cat.  I won’t spoil the answer for you, but it was fascinating to see how everything worked in concert to make that come together.  As always, getting to meet the cast members / characters at the end of the play is always a highlight for the children.

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Any experience that can captivate the attention of two little boys who love to be on electronics is a winner in my book! The boys were leaning in and completely engaged throughout the entire experience. They literally laughed out loud nearly the whole time.  They absolutely loved it and wanted more!

This is the shortest play that we have ever attended at Childsplay.  It is only 45 minutes long.  It is the perfect play to use as a way to introduce young children to the theatrical arts.  The story is one that they know and love.  The pace is quick and highly entertaining for all ages.  I definitely recommend this play for all ages, including young children.

The Cat in the Hat is playing through February 19th at Childsplay at the Tempe Center of the Arts. Tickets are selling fast! You will want to hurry to get yours before they are gone!

~ Kellie Burkhart, Family Blogger

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