Fun by the Wayside

Wayside School was supposed to be a typical one-story school with 30 classrooms side by side, but it was accidentally built 30 stories high with one classroom on each floor. That is only the first of many strange things at this towering elementary school where cows roam the halls, tornadoes shake the building, teachers disappear, and classes are taught on a 19th floor that does not exist. At the peak of all this madness are the children who attend class on the 30th floor. In Sideways Stories From Wayside School, playing at Manhattan Children's Theatre, John Olive has compiled the best scenes from Louis Sachar's award-winning Wayside School series and compressed them into a clever children's play that captures the wacky playfulness of the award-winning books.

The story opens in the colorful 30th-floor classroom, with its yellow walls, purple tables, green stools, and a lopsided chalkboard. Large red apples with scared faces sit on three of the classroom's five desks. The remaining two desks are occupied by students Bebe (Anna Kull) and Myron (Brian Patrick Murphy). They sit rigidly in their seats while their teacher, Mrs. Gorf (Rachel Soll), speaks with the school's beloved janitor, Louis (John K. Kucher), who would like one of her apples. Mrs. Gorf is ready to oblige when Bebe and Myron cry out in protest. When Louis leaves, Mrs. Gorf informs the quivering children that, due to their outburst, they will soon join the others as ingredients for apple pie.

In self-defense, Bebe holds a mirror in front of her face seconds before Mrs. Gorf can wiggle her fingers and cast a spell. Mrs. Gorf cackles, the children scream, and the theater goes dark. When the lights return, there are five children standing in the classroom and a giant green apple where Mrs. Gorf once stood. This time when Louis returns looking for a bite, no one stops him from taking one.

With Mrs. Gorf gone, the children are sent a new teacher, the strange but kind Mrs. Jewels, whom they immediately fall in love with. She, in turn, instantly likes the children and accepts their eccentricities. Bebe is a lightning-fast sketch artist, and Daemon always smiles and counts accurately if not numerically. Myron pulls Leslie's pigtails until he is hypnotized into thinking they are rattlesnakes. Leslie can only read upside down, and Rondi is a compulsive gum chewer.

All the actors in this production have the right amount of energy and emotion to keep their characters lively and interesting while also incorporating hints of realism into their personalities. They groan, whine, stomp, and stumble in true first-grade fashion but go back to their zany Wayside nature when solemnly confessing that Mrs. Gorf's face haunts them in clouds and mashed potatoes.

For a children's play, this is a surprisingly complex story with a strong central conflict, a moral dilemma, and a climactic ending where Myron and Bebe must confront their roles in Mrs. Gorf's disappearance. Because of these mature elements, this production lends itself to an older age group. It is perfect for grade school but could easily extend into adulthood, especially if you consider that the novel has been a favorite among young readers for over ten years.

For these reasons, Sideways Stories From Wayside School is a fun, intelligent play for children but also a guilty pleasure for adults and teens. Manhattan Children's Theatre wisely selects classic novels to adapt into children's plays so that children can appreciate the work for the first time while their parents and older siblings fondly relive it. This production proves you do not have to be a child to enjoy children's theater.

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