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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

The Phantom Tollbooth
Ensemble Theatre
Review by Mark Horning

Also see David's review of Into the Woods

Natalie Grace Sipula, Davion T. Brown and Cast
Photo Courtesty of Ensemble Theatre
For who are fans of such fantasy adventures such as L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (especially his poem "The Jabberwocky") can add one more to their list: The Phantom Tollbooth, a play by Susan Nanus taken from the children's novel by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

Milo is one bored little boy. Everything he does at home, in school, and in between seems a big waste of time. After yet another dismal day of tedium at school he arrives home to find a special package waiting for him. It contains a small tollbooth along with warning signs, tokens, and a map of "The Land Beyond" that has pictures of the Kingdom of Wisdom. After a quick study of the map, Milo decides to take a trip to Dictionopolis. Hopping into his toy electric car he drives past the tollbooth and into a new and magical land.

His first stop is the Land of Expectations where he meets the Whether Man who talks continuously as Milo drives away. Driving through the kingdom he fails to pay attention to where he is going and ends up in the Doldrums where he meets the Lethargarians who convince him to stay with them and waste time. Milo is saved from The Doldrums by Tock, a large talking dog with an alarm clock on each side (making him a watchdog). The two escape in Milo's car as they take to the road again.

They arrive in Dictionopolis and meet with King Azaz, the Unabridged. It is here they find out about the feud with the other capital, Digitopolis (ruled by the Mathemagician). The two kingdoms had once been united through an uneasy peace maintained by the ruler's two adopted sisters, Rhyme and Reason. After a heated argument between the rulers as to which is more important (words or numbers), the sisters suggested that both are equally important. They are thus banished to the Castle in the Air.

Milo and Tock visit the Word Market where words and letters of power are bought and sold. Here they witness a fight between The Spelling Bee and Humbug. The three are then joined through trickery to rescue the Princesses as the trio (boy, dog and insect) encounters multiple demons and tests along the way. For what comes next you will have to see the play. Rest assured that, in the end, Milo realizes that he knew the answers to all of the challenges he faced from the wisdom that came from what he learned in school.

This is a high energy play well suited for children as it carries a box of wisdom tied up with a fantasy bow. As with most fantasy works of this type, it takes an energetic cast, with which this show is blessed. Everything is played big, broad and colorful so your attention never wanders. It is, in effect, organized chaos. Fast-paced running around and "noise surprises" are plentiful throughout the performance.

Parents will appreciate the puns and wordplay that at times seem nonsensical but are in fact carefully planned out and executed. There are some truly wonderfully funny moments. Cast members supply verbal and instrumental sound effects through the use of recorders, fiddles, noise makers, and a small African drum.

The costuming has been brilliantly devised by Kayla Davis; she has concocted a series of fantasy costumes from common everyday items that give the actors full mobility to dash around the stage and audience area. This minimalistic approach lets each actor's talent shine even more brightly.

Filling the back of the stage are two large screens on which are projected crayon-colored maps and images seemingly drawn by a child that set the mood and locale for each scene. Oversized children's blocks and a set of double wooden steps are ingeniously employed to construct everything from a child's room to a trickster's lair to a castle. The main prop stars are, of course, the tollbooth and car that are used to full effect all through the play.

Surprisingly, there were no young children in the theater on opening night. Here is hoping that parents bring the little ones for a fun production that will surely open up dialog on the trip home.

If you are a young parent with small children (6 to 11) wishing to share a night of nonsense humor, puns galore, and hilarious wordplay, this is a play you will not want to miss. Feed your inner child while introducing your own children to live theater.

The Phantom Tollbooth at Ensemble Theatre through January 22, 2017. Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by calling 216-202-0938 or online at

Cast: Natalie Grace Sipula as Milo and Davion T. Brown as Tock with an ensemble of actors that includes Andrew Keller, Evan Thompson, August Scarpelli, Derek Green, Kayla Davis, Samantha Cocco, Rose Scalish and Becca Moseley all playing multiple roles.

Creative Team: Director Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Assistant Director Ismael Lara, Set Designer/TD August Scarpelli, Costume Designer Kayla Davis, Lighting Designer Bryanna Bauman, Production Stage manager Sam Landgraf, Scenic Artists Becca Moseley and Sam Landgraf, Projections by Becca Moseley and Brittni Shambaugh Addison.

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