Great staging, but where is soul of the pachyderm?

The new show at the Chicago Children's Theatre, "The Elephant & The Whale," comes with fascinating mechanical objects from Frank Maugeri and Redmoon Theater, a clever rhyming script from Seth Bockley, hip songs from Kevin O'Donnell and a capable little cast, led by David Catlin, which nearly busts its collective gut trying to make this chilly, oblique and needlessly pretentious piece actually accessible for the kids at whom it is aimed.

Let us return to some fundamentals of storytelling. You can have models, puppets, live actors, panoramic painting apparatuses, shadow-this, shanty-that or a real-live pachyderm and cetacean. All the theatrical sophistication you want. But if you are writing a children's story about a friendship between a whale and an elephant, especially one formed in the trying circumstances of being stuck in someone else's traveling entertainment, then you really might think of actually helping the paying customers care about those creatures.

Elephants are fabulous beasts. The great day I saw a whale jump from the water lives with me still. It surely is not unreasonable to buy a ticket for a show called "The Elephant & The Whale" and expect to feel something. To care. To invest. To understand an unusual friendship. To be drawn in, rather than merely impressed with epic invention.

In all fairness, some in the crowd Saturday did seem eventually to get with the whale in this tale, at least in the last moments, when the show finally acquires some clarity and, well, humanity. But the elephant remains a terribly vague characterization, as this piece spends so much more of its precious time on those who own a family circus and get subjugated by an evil entrepreneur named Quigley — and who gives a darn about him beyond a certain point? It's as if "Oliver" had spent all of its stage time on Bill Sikes. Or if "Matilda" had forgotten the name on its marquee, which, in the case of the show under review, consists of one elephant and one whale.

Bockley's script is partly set in roaring, old, turn-of-the-century Chicago, and it's true that the period yarn has some of the flavor of a gilded but mercurial city with such an auspicious place in circus history. But to call this piece, directed by Maugeri and Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, cool to the touch is like saying elephants have big feet.

Most of the kids around me had furrowed brows for at least the first half-hour. They were fascinated by the staging but struggling to find a way into a show that needed to focus a little less on its own theatrical mechanics and narrative verbosity, clever as they may be, and a lot more on the hearts of the pint-size theatergoers so important to this art form, this company and this city.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through May 26

Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Tickets: $36 at 872-222-9555 or chicagochildrenstheatre.org

CHICAGO

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