Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Stinky Cheese Man
"Out of the mouths of babes ..."
Suddenly, a little girl in the back of the auditorium shouted "That ain't funny! That ain't funny!"
Well, it may have been a succinct review, but it was a little harsh. Parts of The Stinky Cheese Man are very funny indeed. But the quirky, satirical tone of the popular children's book proves hard to replicate onstage, and the production is only intermittently successful.
That 1992 book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith won a devoted audience with its subversive take on fairy tales. In Scieszka and Smith's twisted world, the Ugly Duckling grows up not to be a swan but to be a really ugly duck; the Frog Prince isn't really a prince, just a frog who wants to kiss a princess; and Cinderella runs into Rumplestiltskin - but they really don't get along.
These are some clever ideas, and the audience really enjoyed the ridiculous twists on some venerable tales. But a play needs something to hold these short stories together. For that reason, adaptor John Glore has added a narrator - Jack (of Beanstalk) fame, played by Mullen. Jack tries to hold the show together, but control keeps slipping away from him - if he starts a story, the curtain and proscenium might disappear into the rafters, or the Little Red Hen might run out onstage and try to take over the show. It's a cute idea, and Mullen tries hard, but all of his comic frustration becomes tiring after about five minutes. Director Whit MacLaughlin seems to be trying for the anarchic spirit of Monty Python, but the subtle wit of the stories never quite meshes with the overdone winking of the bridging material.
Still, most of the stories are quite engaging. Helping to put them over is a terrific cast, especially Chris Faith, who makes an indelible impression in several outlandish comic roles. Whether he's strapping a block of cheese to his head to play the title role, donning a dress to play Cinderella's stepmother, or putting on stilts to play a dimwitted giant who seems to be a refugee from the World Wrestling Foundation, Faith makes the most of every comic opportunity. Other standouts in the cast include Rainey Lacey, who has a funny turn as a dimwitted dancing princess, and Sarah Doherty, who radiates a lovable sweetness as the Ugly Duckling and a Cockney-accented Cinderella.
The Arden has also provided its usual top-notch production values. There's a wild set design by Matt Saunders, and creative costumes by Rosemarie E. McKelvey (I especially liked the rolling, popping eyes for the Ugly Duckling). And Jorge Cousineau's sound design has a witty use of music - the opening number mixes in everything from the "Hallelujah Chorus" to "Rapper's Delight," and later in the play there are snippets of everyone from Spike Jones to Raymond Scott to John Williams.
My thirteen-year-old niece Bridget attended The Stinky Cheese Man with me, but she felt that she was far too old for the show. Still, she did enjoy some of the more sophisticated humor, particularly Chris Faith's portrayal of a surfer-dude Chicken Licken. Most of the children around us were much younger; they laughed a lot at the silly skits, but were silent during most of the narrator's interludes. In the end, though, they gave the cast a hearty round of applause, then engaged in a lively question-and-answer session with the cast.
Will your kids like it? Well, if they have short attention spans, they'll probably like the quick movement from story to story. And if you don't mind them hearing a few jokes about farting and "cow patties," send them on over to the Arden. But if you're an adult - heck, if you're thirteen - you might find it tough going, more dull than droll. Despite the efforts of a skilled cast, the whimsy of The Stinky Cheese Man proves hard to sustain onstage.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales runs through June 11 (extended due to popular demand) at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. The show is recommended for families with children ages five and older. Ticket prices range from $14 to $30 (children 12 and under $14-$16; teens $18-$22; adults $26-$30) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid