The best thing about The Smartest Girl in the World is that it is not actually about how smart the titular girl is, but about how much she learns from her brother, and how much her brother learns from her. At its core, Miriam Gonzales’ breezy tale is about siblings who move from a rose-colored view of each other to a more mature and growing love.
The two halves of the play offer plenty of fun that tickles the young members of its audience. In the beginning, Lizzy (Alina Collins Maldonado) goes on fantastic journeys of the imagination under the guidance of her older brother Leo (Dallas Tolentino), wherein both of them get to be superheroes and adventurers. Dragons and castles and costumes, improvised by Lizzy and Leo from the everyday materials in their bedroom, not only make for a visual treat, but also illustrate their special bond.
Their relationship grows more complicated later when the dangers of Leo’s chronic illness leads his parents (Yesenia Iglesias and Philip da Costa) to deny him the opportunity to represent his school on a local Quiz Bowl. Lizzy, previously more obsessed with being a princess and idolizing her brother, vows to live up to the role he is denied by studying up to be the ‘smartest girl in the world’ and go on the show for him. That quiz show, led by an overexcited cowboy host (da Costa again), provides the laughs and energy for this second half.
It is when Lizzy learns that Leo’s reaction to his younger sister getting to do what he was denied is not the happiest and most supportive reaction that Gonzales’ script, and Kathryn Chase Bryer’s direction, shows its great sensitivity. Young children who attend may come out of it remembering how they screamed and laughed at the non-scary dragons and the silly antics of the quiz show host and Leo and Lizzy’s best friends (da Costa and Iglesias once more). Yet they will take with them a deeper sense of the how to appreciate your loved ones.
The story is set in a slightly oversized double bedroom for Leo and Lizzy (design by Andrew Cohen), which proves to be an excellent playground for their imaginations. It is ringed by a brick wall with some subtle graffiti on it; this and other small details make it clear that the Latino family of Leo and Lizzy are not living the most comfortable middle-class life.
The Smartest Girl in the World
closes October 29, 2017
Details and tickets
The children are largely unaware of this – it is simply their reality. It is very refreshing seeing a setting that many young audience members will find familiar, without making the story about that setting. Too many stories default to being about middle-class white children if they are not specifically about ethnicity or poverty.
Although the entire production is beautifully and professionally done – the actors are effervescent, and the musical underscoring by Timothy Guillot is affecting – there is a slightly repetitive and wandering quality to the 80-plus minutes of narrative that leads to some seat-shuffling. Yet despite this, and the potentially painful themes of disillusionment dealt with, the overall light touch ensures that the young audience leaves the theatre in high and happy spirits.
The Smartest Girl in the World by Miriam Gonzales . Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer . Featuring Philip da Costa, Yesenia Iglesias, Alina Collins Maldonado, Dallas Tolentino . Composer: Timothy Guillot . Movement Director: Elena Day . Scenic Designer: Andrew Cohen . Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz . Lighting Designer: Sarah Tundermann . Sound Designer: Neil McFadden . Stage Manager: Amanda Landis . Produced by Imagination Stage . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.