Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Six Characters in Search of an Author
Based on a well-loved series of middle grade books by Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical presents rookie middle school student Greg Heffley's search for a way to secure a high popularity rank in the middle school universe. This is no easy feat, as Greg learns, going from one gambit to another in pursuit of a claim to fame. Among his plots are to become a star wrestler, run for class treasurer, be the new cartoonist for the school newspaper, and join the kindergarten crossing guards.
Greg has to contend with an overly supportive mother and put-upon father (both clueless), spoiled little brother Manny and punked-out older brother Rodrick, who is committed to making Greg's life a living hell. In his corner, Greg has his best friend Rowley, loyal to the end of time, but who sometimes embarrasses Greg by his still-childlike demeanor. For example, Greg is mortified on the first day of middle school when Rowley asks aloud if Greg wants to come over after school to play. Cringing, Greg says, "you mean hang out. Sure, I would love to hang out. That's what we do in middle school, we hang out."
Life is one vexation after another for Greg, but he muddles through, and along the way learns a lesson or two. That is pretty much the show. Kevin Del Aguila's well-crafted book draws from episodes from a couple of books in the "Wimpy Kid" series. There are abundant laughs, but the humor is of the good-hearted variety, even when it gently veers into middle school grossology. The book also depicts the perils of adolescence, familiar to anyone who has been there, with genuine affection that treats those formative years with sensitivity.
The score by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler captures adolescent energy, with a toothless rock sound, but fails to offer many distinctive songs. The opening "Middle of it All" tunefully presents the lay of Wimpy Kid's land, and "Animal Heart," the second act opener, successfully radiates positive energy. "Rodrick Rules," sung menacingly by Greg's brother, is a crowd pleaser, largely due to a tremendous performance by Brandon Brooks. Two songs that draw on the gentle side of the story"Do the Right Thing, Greg," sung by Greg's mom at a moment of moral reckoning, and "Better with Rowley," an ode to the boys' friendshipfulfill their roles in the story without becoming particularly memorable.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes exuberantly to life thanks to Rachel Rockwell's spirited staging and choreography, and terrific performances by all concerned. The numerous dance numbers are especially engaging, elaborate even by the Children's Theatre Company's high bar, and certainly make a case for the non-stop energy of the middle school set. "Animal Heart," a pop tune performed by Joshie, teen-fab sensation whom Rowley idolizes, is especially well staged, drawing cheers from the audience.
Ricky Falbo plays Greg, the wimpy kid himself. Falbo is a 12 year old who hails from the Chicago area, and he seems born to play Greg Heffley. Falbo's physical look suits the part to a T, with his narrow shoulders and angular features. He has amazing comic chops for so young a performer, and sings with great heart, if perhaps not a finely tuned vocal instrument. Greg's cohort in many of his wimpy kid adventures is best friend Rowley, and David Rosenthal does a great job portraying this lovable lunk, kind and trusting to a fault. Brandon Brooks, as mentioned above, owns the role of Rodrick, any twelve year old's nightmare version of a big brother.
Autumn Ness as Mom and Tod Petersen as Dad bring a cartoon-like quality to their roles, which suits the production. They are clearly loving and well-meaning parents, even if they often seem unaware of their son's realities. As a number of teachers, coaches, and other adult figures, Reed Sigmund and China Brickey show their versatility going from role to role, wig to wig, and costume to costume. Johannah Easley scored big earlier this season in the title role of Children's Theatre Company's Akeelah and the Bee. Here she plays Greg's nemesis Patty, a feisty know-it-all with an air of authority. Om Angarkar as Chirag and Soren Thayne Miller as Fregley are delightful as two of Greg's middle school classmates whose outsider status provides comfort to longing-for-approval Greg. The rest of the ensemble do well as various classmates and threatening older teenagers. As an ensemble, the entire cast bring strong voices and polished dance to the stage.
The physical production is delightful, with settings that seem to be drawn on a background of lined, three-hole punched paper. The school principal makes droll announcements through an animated public address loud speaker. The set, lighting, sound, and projections work together to make the entire stage resemble a comic brought to life. Costumes perfectly match the look of any suburban middle school student body.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical is a huge amount of fun, staged and acted with all the stops pulled. It is not a great work of theater, but very entertaining for all ages and totally suitable for younger audiences. The predictable moralthat it is best to be one's self, and to realize the value of a true friendis well worn, but can always bear repeating, especially for those who are in the throes of the same struggles Greg faces. There has been talk of the production moving on, perhaps even to Broadway. Whether or not it has the high gloss or sophistication to succeed in the pressure cooker of Broadway, Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical seems destined to a long life on many stages. Twin City audiences are fortunate to be the first to experience the joys of this winning new musical.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical continues at the Children's Theatre Company through June 12, 2016. 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $25.00 - $80.00. Rush Tickets for unsold seats available two hours before each performance: $15.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for all ages.
Music, Lyrics and Music Direction: Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler; Book: Kevin Del Aguila; Based on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books series by Jeff Kinney and the 20th Century Fox films; Direction and Choreography: Rachel Rockwell; Scenic Design: Scott Davis; Costume Design: Mara Blumenfeld; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Projection Design: Mike Tutaj; Orchestrations: Keith Harrison; Stage Manager: Stacy McIntosh; Produced by special arrangement with Fox Stage Productions and Kevin McCollum.
Cast: Om Angarkar (Chirag), Carter Bannwarth (Lionel James, ensemble), China Brickey (Character Gal), Brandon Brooks (Rodrick), Ethan Davenport (Bryce, Teen Thug, ensemble), Dora Dolphin (Pauline, ensemble), Johannah Easley (Patty), Mario Esteb (ensemble), Ricky Falbo (Greg), Jonah Harrison (Todd, ensemble), Aliya Mukamuri (Yvette, ensemble), Autumn Ness (Mom), Tod Peterson (Dad), Keegan Robinson (Joshie, Teen Thug, ensemble), David Rosenthal (Rowley), Reed Sigmund (Character Guy), Soren Thayne Miller (Fregley), Clair Tomari-Leak (ensemble), Nate Turcotte (Chris Hosey, ensemble), Huxley Westmeier (Manny), Mabel Weismann (Manny).