4:23 PM CST, November 8, 2011
When I dropped in a couple of conversations that I was headed to see a new children's musical (by Chad Henry) based on the book "Goodnight Moon," I was met with furrowed brows. Margaret Wise Brown's much-loved bedtime classic may have sold millions of copies since it was first published in 1947, but when it comes to narrative complexity, it's not exactly "War and Peace." Or Harry Potter. To many sadly poisoned adult minds, this is not so much a story as a list.
Certainly, a young rabbit says goodnight to the various objects he sees in his bedroom — a moon, a red balloon, kittens and so on. And, yes, that is pretty much the whole story. But, I enthusiastically pointed out to the clearly skeptical, our hero's keen lupine eye sees things of which our prosaic, insomniac young selves probably never had the pleasure — like a cat and a fiddle and a cow jumping over the moon.
And although the Chicago Tribune hereby offers no warranties, expressed or implied, and although this writer can report only very mixed results in numerous tests in our Evanston lab, listing things is a long-established way of getting pint-sized tyrants to sleep. Or so I'm told.
Either way, I was all for such a musical. But although it is staged with great visual pizazz (and a live band) by the Chicago Children's Theatre in the elegant Biograph Theatre and certainly pleased many in its target demographic, it was not all I had hoped.
Henry's score feels thin. I know, perhaps that was inevitable, given the source material. But I was somehow hoping for some deeper thoughts on what it means to go to sleep, to give up the day, even to say goodnight. The music is quirky and humorous — bears papa, mama and baby all warble for your pleasure — and the melodies inoffensive, but the emotional core of the material is just not all that resonant. And whether you're aged 3 or 93, "Goodnight Moon" can be a very emotional book.
A crucial sense of intimacy is missing from director David Kersnar's frenetic production. To the credit of the director and his design team, the famous Clement Hurd illustrations are brought to life in great kinetic detail. On the set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, everything seems to move, from the books on the bookcase to the flames in the hearth. And if you have a "Goodnight Moon" fanatic in your home — or if you've read the darn thing so many times you know every inch of it yourself — rest assured that no detail is overlooked, from the bedside clock to the presence of "The Runaway Bunny" on the shelf.
But at Friday morning's show, nobody seemed to have made a decision on how much to acknowledge the audience. Young folks all around me were chattering away to the stage, but Alex Goodrich, who plays the lead bunny, seemed unsure whether to talk back. Respond, rabbit! What choice do you really have?
Kersnar's main tactic here is to keep things moving and active. Fair enough — that takes you a long way with this age group and the show has numerous visual pleasures and lively performances from Goodrich and the supporting cast of Sara Sevigny, Aaron Holland and Becky Poole. But this little musical does not build as it should. This story needs stakes — a goal to be pursued with fortitude and passion. And as any exhausted parent in need of a cocktail and some premium cable will attest, there are no stakes more crucial, for all parties, than the blissfully quotidian act of falling asleep and living to fight another day.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour
Tickets: $26-$36 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org
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