Like the little engine that could, the audience at the Sunday show must have said to themselves while chugging through the first icy morning of the season, “ I think I can, I think I can.” And they did. It takes more that a little wintry mix to quell the enthusiasm of a sold out house focused on the take-home messages from the well known children’s tale about perseverance, belief in oneself, and faith. As rendered by one of the metro area’s most creative and insightful directors, Jeremy Skidmore, The Little Engine That Could not only got all the stranded toys over the mountain, but reinforced some timeless and ageless lessons that all could use.
The well designed and colorful set by Eileen Garcia reinforces the locomotive imagery with “tracks” painted across the stage with multiple exits which Skidmore uses to the max. The high spirited performers engage the audience from the very beginning seeking “assistance” and encouragement while having fun in the aisles throughout.
Branda Lock plays the featured train, but the most engaging and fun to watch is Jade Wheeler who plays the first several engines that could easily pull the toys, if only they would. Her high jinx while speeding along the track and her restlessness when she has to slow down are delightful. Wheeler also has wonderful dance movements when her glittery engine takes the stage and the entire ensemble snaps into some serious boogie down moves to well executed choreography by Kelly Mayfield. Davis Chandler Hasty as Bear shows neat dance training with gorgeously performed spins, Chelsea Rae Abbate as the monkey hangs comfortably on the bar, Javi Harnly is a crowd pleasing clown, and Katie Brobst as the pretty play doll stays in pert and alert “nobody is prettier than me” attention, all in gorgeous costumes designed by Katie Touart.
Wheeler next plays the big bad bravado of a freight train leaving the toys in the dust, and finally a snoozing, Geritol deprived old geezer of an engine that if she weren’t so funny, would put the crowd to sleep as in a poppy field. When Lock enters as the little engine, dressed in blue attire, knock kneed, trepidatious and uncertain of herself, we’re all well prepped and ready for the grand finale as she demonstrates what can be done with gumption, will power and determination. It’s a wonderful message told with fun and energy, which, gathering from the crowd’s reaction, fit the bill and was well worth the traipse through the frosty conditions.
The songs, for the most part, were catchy, and the text has a fresh and sometimes even funky flair, thanks to the creative style of stage veteran James Larson who adapted the age-old tale. Stuart Kenny, on the other hand, is relatively new to the scene in writing music and lyrics, and sometimes it shows. His opening number “Here Comes the Morning Train” has a similar pace and style to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” from Oklahoma, a fine piece of music but not a rollicking or original start. His “Break Down Blues” on the other hand has a fun approach, as does the Shiny Train’s song. What the performers lack in vocal range, they more than compensate with clarity, energy and excitement about the material. They commit to their characters’ stories and bring the text to life, literally.
And what a story it is. You simply can’t go wrong with the positive message in this beloved tale. The Little Engine That Could hits a multigenerational chord that will delight all ages. Director Skidmore said that the story was “the first book I ever read that caused me to think about how I feel about myself.” The spirit of the story comes through loud and clear in this production making it a good stocking stuffer of a good time for all ages. Besides, it’s always fun to see future showbiz stars in the making –I’ve already bookmarked Adventure Theater’s next production, Flat Stanley, to catch Jade Wheeler’s and the others’ next winning moves.
The Little Engine That Could
Based on the book by Watty Piper, Adapted for the Stage by James Larson
Music and Lyrics by Stuart Kenny
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Produced by Adventure Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The Little Engine That Could plays through Jan. 10, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.