A lot is asked of children's entertainment: it must be fun, educational, and clean, and cater to short attention spans. Young people make for tough crowds; they haven't yet mastered the art of feigning interest and will make it known if they're not enjoying themselves. And in New York, those who produce theater for children must contend with not only hard-to-please tykes but also their hyper-involved parents, who scrutinize everything before it's seen or heard by their little ones. The New Acting Company has recently started a monthlong run of Sideways Stories From Wayside School, a play adapted by John Olive from Louis Sachar's beloved stories. Featuring an architecturally questionable school building teeming with strange teachers and quirky kids, these tales make classrooms seem more friendly than usual while slyly teaching social behavior and Morality 101. In the hands of director Stephen Michael Rondel, Sachar's stories have been brought vividly to life in a colorful, engaging production.
The play opens on the class on the 30th floor. Most of the students have been turned into apples by their wicked teacher, Mrs. Gorf; class nerd Myron and best artist BeBe seem to be about to receive the same fate. Through a bit of resourcefulness, they turn their teacher into an apple instead, and the enchantment is broken on their classmates Dameon (who smiles all the time), Rondi (who's a bit of a bully), and LesLie (who is treated like one girl but is played by two girls in identical dress). The students are soon joined by a new teacher, Mrs. Jewls, who is kind, funny, pretty, and smart—the perfect teacher, in their minds. The rest of the show follows their class adventures, dealing with other teachers and their own personal challenges.
The biggest stars of this production are the set and costume designers. Gregg Bellon has created a marvelously loopy classroom by mixing forced perspective, a raked stage (slanting downstage), and bits of traditional classroom pieces (combination desk/chairs and a wide blackboard). Despite an overload of hues and props (books on desks, papers on bulletin boards), the use of perspective directs the audience's eyes up center toward the action. Bellon also employs an oversized puppet mouth above and to the right of the stage for announcements by the school principal, Mr. Kidswater; it's a cute device that makes a normally static voice-over entertaining.
Irina Kruzhilina's costumes combine swatches of brightly patterned material to create an entirely new sartorial language. Her pieces are a mash-up of rural Sunday best, bolts found in the sale bin at a fabric store, and Seussian architecture. It's a credit to Kruzhilina's talents that one can see a pattern (ha-ha) in her designs, when the characters could have been less creatively dressed in old clothes that had a few sequins here or an extra leg sewn on there.
The mostly young cast seemed to be having a good time, and their enthusiasm was matched by the adults playing their teachers and school counselors. Best of the bunch were Maxine Dannatt, as BeBe, and Carrie Heitman, as Mrs. Jewls. Though Dannatt was the youngest in the group, she conveyed the most charm and got the biggest laughs as feisty, "school's fastest drawer" BeBe. Heitman, saddled with the challenge of playing "the perfect teacher," was able to create a very warm, real person; the public school system would be only too lucky to recruit an instructor like this.
Reasonably swift blackouts between scenes and composer Andy Cohen's fun incidental music and sound cues helped move the show along. Rondel's directing kept the events light and fun without being cutesy, and brought fine performances out of his cast. In adapting the books, Olive wisely cut down the classroom size from 30 students to six, and included fun vignettes that also propelled several story threads.
Theater can be a great teaching tool; kids can see real people their own age going through similar challenges and learn how to handle them by example. But Sideways Stories is more than a lesson on good behavior for children. It is also a lesson on how children's theater can be clever without being dull, and amusing without being dumb.