Music and Lyrics by Arnold Black and Sheldon Harnick
Based on the book by Norton Juster
Directed by Timothy A. McDonald
Produced by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Jonny Perl
Imagine a show that teaches kids academic subjects such as words and numbers, as well as explores subjects like the power of thinking, overcoming fear, and heroism. Next, imagine this show in a magical, fantasy sort of setting. Finally, add many great songs, smart dances, and genius special effects and you’ll get The Phantom Tollbooth.
When I first entered the Kennedy Center, there were many young and restless audience members squirming in their seats and screaming. I thought, “This is going to be a long night”, although from the moment the show began, the entire audience, including myself, was hooked.
As the production begins we meet Milo, a young boy who thinks everyday is boring. He doesn’t get excited about anything, whether it’s playing with his friends or going to school. When a mysterious tollbooth appears in his room, Milo is sent on a great adventure to the Castle in the Air. But first, he must persuade the King of Digitopolis (reminiscent of Groucho Marx) and the King of Dictionopolis to make peace after a two year feud and rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason.
On his journey Milo meets the comical “whether man” in a delightful song sung by Phil Olejack about how it’s better to know “whether there will be weather than to know what the weather will be”. Milo is later introduced to the King of Dictionopolis’ advisor. Like a talking thesaurus the advisor greets Milo by saying, “Salutations! Good afternoon! Hi there!” as he spins his multicolored hat around his head. With wonderful timing, Phil Olejack performs this role exceptionally well.
Following Milo along on his quest are his “old friends” the demons. They were the reason Milo was always so bored. They would tell him, “What’s the point in doing anything”. First, there is the “Terrible Trivium” who causes Milo to perform unnecessary, tedious tasks. Second, there is the demon of insincerity. She would cause Milo to tell lies and make excuses. Finally, there’s the “Senses Taker” who literally takes Milo’s senses away. Even though Milo defeats the demons in the end, the audience is warned that they are everywhere and we have to try our best to avoid them. This sends out an excellent message to kids, teaching them to avoid trivial tasks, tell the truth, and stay alert.
The set of this show is simply outstanding. The backdrop consists of a map. At first, the map is split into many pieces, in order show how the two kings are in a time of disagreement. As the show progresses and the two kings end their long-lasting feud, the pieces of the map fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. “Thank-you” to scenic designer James Kronzer and his assistant Hannah Crowell for adding such an important part to this production.
The cast consists of seven, very talented actors playing about forty different parts. These actors include Katie Babb, Kurt Boehm, Cyana Cook, James Gardiner, LC Harden Jr., Phil Olejak, and Lauren Williams. I give a standing ovation to each and every actor.
My personal favorite character was Tock, the watchdog, played brilliantly by Lauren Williams. She played her part as if she could read the mind of a dog. She was tough yet thoroughly pleased by a simple ear scratch.
Another round of applause for the first-rate direction of the show by Timothy A. McDonald, the clever choreography by Karma Camp and the admirable Music Direction by Derek Bowley.
Running Time- 70 minutes without an intermission
When- Through December 16th
Where- The Kennedy Center Family Theatre, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566
Info- Call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/