Most of the great books for young children, such as Crockett Johnson's 1955 masterpiece "Harold and the Purple Crayon," are based on the very simplest of ideas. That's why everybody thinks they're so easy to write.
But even if "Harold" appears just to be about a 4-year-old with a colorful writing implement who goes around drawing stuff he likes and then playing inside his creations, the follically challenged youngster is, I swear, an everyman — a moral signpost, a talisman, maybe even a prophet. And if you sit where I sit, Harold also offers a burst of what life takes away as you age: the ability to dream something up, draw it and then step inside that very thing and be entirely happy, until the next idea arrives like clockwork. Harold knows not rejection, fear, scarce resources, insecruity, artists' block, the barriers created by past choices. He just imagines, draws and then lives. Johnson's book, and its many sequels, is as much about the joys of the blank canvas — and how difficult it is to find one — as "Sunday in the Park With George."
Now if you're thinking this might all seem like heavy stuff for a 55-minute musical at the Chicago Children's Theatre targeted at 3- to 6-year-olds, well, sorry, but Harold is serious business. And any live adaptation also has to compete with the memory of the brilliant HBO "Harold" series, which featured the music of Van Dyke Parks, who created the best soundtrack for a little kids' series ever. Along with the much under-appreciated "Pinky Dinky Doo," "Harold" was one of those rare family TV shows that parents enjoyed just as much as their kids. But it was TV; the theater should be able to do better when it comes to the communication of the heart of Harold's world.
Alas, that's not the case at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, where this crucially important company now has hung out its shingle. This new stage version, which was penned by Don Darryl Rivera and first performed at the Seattle Children's Theatre in 2011, misses the emotional content of the book. Sure, Sean Graney's production uses some cool video to bring Haorld's drawings alive, and there are some amusing little set pieces, vignettes and audience-participation segments. But I spent pretty much the entire running time wondering if Nate Lewellyn, the actor in the oversize toddler clothing who plays Harold and goes about as deep as a piece of construction paper, was ever going to show us Harold's soul, or at least make him seem to want or need something. Lewellyn is clearly a young actor with talent, but here he fell into many of the traps faced by adults trying to play little kids — blandness and over-simplification being top of the list. The live components of his creations, played by Bethany Thomas and Alex Goodrich, are also inclined to the cutesy and the predictably kid-like. The whole show lacks an emotional center.
In fairness, I should note that several rows were filled with youngsters way more enthusiastic than me, and parents also will love the set-up at the theater. Everyone gets a purple crayon — even a critic taking poisonous notes — and the chance to draw on the walls. The songs (music is by Auston James and Bob Burgess) are pleasant enough, and the singing is very decent.
Perhaps I am overinvested in Harold, but I could not get past the sense here that this was just another day with the crayon for the drawing dude: he drew some things, those things showed up either through some clever theatrical trick or on a digital screen, a few perky pals popped out from Geoffrey Curley's set and that was that. This episodic, jumpy, predictable show doesn't have any dramatic build. Which is a fancy way of saying it does not grab hold of Harold's story. Which is, of course, the story of how, for a few brief years in life, assuming you're surrounded by love, you can draw and dream, and there still will be bread on the table.
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 55 minutes
Tickets: $20-$36 at 872-222-9555 or chicagochildrenstheatre.org