Before he wrote the epic "Hugo"— which turned out pretty well, all in all — Brian Selznick penned a little illustrated book called "The Houdini Box," the tale of 10-year-old Victor, an aspiring magician who idealizes Harry Houdini but is, alas, constrained by a mother who wearies of extricating her son from locked trunks and persuading him to breathe while taking a bath.
With Selznick very much present over the last few weeks, Chicago Children's Theatre has turned that lovely little tale into a new, hour-long musical that could use more attention to the demands of vocal performance, but is otherwise a very charming attraction at the Mercury Theater, a jewel box of a venue for which it is ideally suited. As Martin Scorsese well understood with the movie version of "Hugo," Selznick's storytelling has a distinctive visual vocabulary, which makes it ideal for dramatization. And you get the sense here that the lyricist and bookwriter, Hannah Kohl, has an innate understanding of the Selznick aesthetic and vocabulary. She extends his narrative just enough for it to work as drama but retains its distinctive rhythm and spirit.
Although "The Houdini Box" remains a very simple story about a kid who briefly meets his hero, only to see that hero die, Blair Thomas' big-hearted production (Thomas both directs and designs) is actually quite a moving little show, capturing the way a boy grows up to be a father and can only become a kid again when he listens to his child. The best children's theater often probes the complexities of the parent-child relationship and, in the end, argues that learning is never a one-way street. This is such a piece, likely to touch most parents and make their kids feel empowered. I rarely like trivial children's theater — there is too much of that on TV — and this piece feels important and wise enough to merit a trip to the Mercury with someone one loves.
Thomas, perhaps the best visual storyteller in Chicago, blends live actors and puppets, many of which are shadow puppets. He integrates the various forms exceptionally well and allows you to easily and clearly track these characters through different locations, moods and aesthetic forms. One particular puppet — the one playing Victor's baseball-playing kid — is a magnificently fluid,"War Horse"-like creation, fully imbued with the hopeful energy of a little boy who wants nothing more than to knock it out of the park and please a dad who could use a few dreams of his own.
There are times when the actors — Alex Weisman plays the kid, Sara Sevigny is the mother, Derek Hasenstab is Houdini and others — overplay and compromise the gentleness of Thomas' designs and the inherent truthfulness of Selznick's writing. There's no room in this world for stereotypes, not when there's so much at stake. The best moments, and there are several, come in the quieter moments, such as when Weisman finds out that the great escapologist couldn't cheat death in the end, or when we see how easy it can be not to listen to a child. (This was a big weekend for Houdini in Chicago; see also my review of "Death and Harry Houdini.") In the one scene where he really delves into what makes Houdini Houdini, Hasenstab makes us all want to meet the great escapologist for ourselves.
Composer Mark Messing has created a zestful suite of oft-percussive music for the show, light on heart but very much in the style of Houdini. But the quality of the singing is, at best, mixed, which is a frequent problem with this particular company when it does musicals. Still, when a show is this beautiful, and the story this emotional and engaging, you find you can lock that problem away in the trunk, mostly, and walk in Victor's shoes with empathy and ease.
When: Through March 4
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. (Then March 14-25 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie)
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Tickets: $15-$36 at 773-325-1700 or chicagochildren'stheatre.org