Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of All American Boys
The show is based on Jeff Kinney's beloved series of middle grade books, which with humor and heart relay the travails of Greg Heffley as he struggles to find his place among his peers and within his family–he is the proverbial middle child. Older brother Rodrick is a high school student who makes a sport of putting Greg down, and who is always angry at his parents. Rodrick dresses and moves with the affect of a punk rocker, and is in a band named Loded Diper. Younger brother Manny seems always underfoot and gets away with everything, using the lame excuse "I'm only three." Their mother is the boys' biggest cheerleader, while constantly coaching them to be kind, work hard, and take responsibility. Dad intends to be a good influence, but more often than not misses the clues and, when he does catch them, doesn't quite know what to say.
If dealing with family is a challenge, life at school is a nightmare. This is middle school, so the stakes are high. Every student is keenly aware of the popularity rank of every other student–as are we, because every so often their rankings appear, either as projections or cleverly posted on props. Greg is ranked in the middle and wants desperately to move to the top. He tries any number of gambits to accomplish this–running for student government, distinguishing himself as class clown, winning the holiday talent show. Nothing works. Then he hits his stride, parlaying his hobby of sketching comics into a spot as the school paper's new cartoonist. Greg's stock rises–but can it stay aloft?
Standing beside Greg through all of his striving is his loyal friend Rowley. Rowley still has the innocence of an elementary school kid. This is clear from the first day of middle school when Rowley asks Greg if he wants to come over after school and play. Greg goes ballistic, telling Rowley in no uncertain terms that in middle school kids do not play, they "hang out." And yes, he will come over to "hang out," saying it loudly to make sure the other kids have heard him. Rowley cares not a wit about his ranking, or about Greg's, but he will help Greg succeed if it makes Greg happy. Or at least try. Unfortunately, Rowley's innocence sometimes undermines Greg's ambition.
We meet an assortment other classmates, such as his nemesis, Patty Farrell, whiz-kid Chirag Gupta, and the terribly eccentric Fregley. There are also a pair of tough high school kids in pursuit of Gregg and Rowley throughout the show, Rodrick's bandmates, and a sampling of teachers. And we could not forget Rowley's idol, a show biz phenom named Joshie, with songs aimed at kids just like Rowley, enjoining them to always do their best, play fair, and in other ways resist the impulses of adolescence.
While the thrust of Kevin Del Aguila's book for the show is Greg's search over the course of the school year for the one thing that will vault him into the stratosphere of middle school popularity, the episodic structure sometimes wanders into other places, such as the Halloween adventure, a performance by the great Joshie, and Greg's career as a school safety patrol guard. The latter actually leads Greg to the biggest moral decision he faces, paving the pathway toward crisis, insight, and a thoroughly satisfying ending.
The pop-rock score is by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, and, if it is not greatly distinguished, it brims with the energy of adolescence. The tuneful, extended opening, "Middle of It All," introduces us to Greg, the people in his life, and his dilemma, which he reminds us in the refrain is being "stuck in the middle." Joshie's anthemic "Animal Heart," opening the second act, is a mediocre song made into a crowd pleaser by way of lavish staging. Two songs that appeal to the heart rather than the funny bone–"Do the Right Thing, Greg," sung by Greg's mother at a moment of moral reckoning, and an ode Greg sings to his friendship with Rowley at a rare moment up insight–provide calming balance to the rest of the high-energy score.
The central role of Greg is double cast. At the performance I attended the part was played by Huxley Westemeier and he is, to put it bluntly, amazing. He has show biz in his veins, bursting with talent whether singing, dancing or acting. His voice has the raspy quality of a boy early in adolescence, on the verge of breaking into its adult depth but still on the childhood side of that great divide. Think of Fred Savage in the first season of "The Wonder Years." It is irresistible. Fun fact: Westemeier appeared on this same stage six years ago, in the world premiere of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, at that time playing Greg's toddler brother Manny. Welcome back, Huxley!
The rest of the cast? All grade A. Rowley is played by Kamryn Henderson, making his Children's Theatre debut, and he is also terrific, conveying a foundation of good sense beneath his wide-eyed naivete. Harry Lawler makes all the right moves as Rodrick, adept at making Greg's life miserable but not nearly as demonic as he wants to be. He makes the most of his big number, "Rodrick Rules." Autumn Ness is another returnee from six years back, as Greg, Manny and Rodrick's mom. She pours comic energy into this mother's desperation to raise her sons well. Fellow CTC company member Reed Sigmund joins her as their father, excelling with more of a droll approach to parenting. Everyone else in the cast is splendid, with Anja Arora as Patty Farrell and Sam Mandell as Fregley especially impressing.
At its premiere six years back, a great deal of the energy and sparkle were attributable to Chicago-based director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell. Sadly, Rockwell fell victim to ovarian cancer two years later. However, that energy and sparkle remain, under the helm of director Jenn Thompson and choreographer Patricia Wilcox. The show is in near constant motion, with seamless dissolves from one scene into another, and the dance numbers deliver the joyfulness that seems to be the secret sauce of this production. "Animal Heart" is a completely goofy song, staged with such abandon that it totally brings down the house.
The set is designed by Scott Davis, repeating his work from six years ago, and it is marvelously ingenious. A huge sheet of white, lined notebook paper (three holes punched in place) occupies floor to ceiling at the rear of the stage, then curves out onto the stage floor with a bit protruding over the orchestra pit–the whole wonderful thing askew, as would be expected among papers kept by a middle schooler. Upon this blank sheet, the story is written. Set pieces representing rooms in Greg's house, Rowley's bedroom, classrooms in Westmore Middle School, and other locations glide on and off with ease. Projections, designed by Edward T. Morris, embellish the sets. Sets and projected images alike have the look of a child's drawings, perhaps the cartoons doodled by Greg Heffley himself. Sound (Sten Severson), lighting (Philip S. Rosenberg), and costumes (Kara Harmon) are all top-drawer work.
If you were fortunate enough to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid six years ago, when it first arrived, you will enjoy it just as much now–this production is every bit the equal of the premiere. And perhaps there is a child or two in your life, too young for the show in 2016, who will be forever grateful if you bring them to see this show. If you haven't seen it, it's lucky that you have a second chance. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is no wimp–it's a winner.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid runs through June 18, 2022, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $20.00 - $78.00. Discounts for seniors and children are available online. Rush tickets for unsold seats are available one hour before each performance: $15.00 for children, $20.00 for adults, in person only. For tickets and information, call 612-874-0400 or visit 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 20th Century Fox Studios; Director: Jenn Thompson; Choreography: Patricia Wilcox; Scenic Design: Scott Davis; Costume Design: Edward T. Morris; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Projection Design: Edward T. Morris; Orchestrations: Christopher Jahnke; Music Supervision and Conductor (through June 12)- Amanda Morton; Conductor: Victor Zupanc (June 14 - June 18); Score Supervisor: Danielle Gimbal; Keyboard Programmer: Taylor Gimbal Williams; Stage Manager: Anna Baranski; Assistant Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Choreographer: Kym Chambers; Produced by special arrangement with Kevin McCollum and Buena Vista Theatrical.
Cast: KateMarie Andrews (Yvette, ensemble), Anja Arora (Patty Farrell, ensemble), Jaya Bird (overgrown kid, high schooler, ensemble), Drew Elo (high schooler, ensemble), Brielle Freeburg (Manny Heffley *), Ella Freeburg (Pauline, ensemble), Kamryn Henderson (Rowley Jefferson), Dean Holt (Mr. Huff, Bill Walter, Coach Underwood, Mr. Winsky), Harry Lawler (Rodrick Heffley, ensemble), Andrej Humiston (Joshie, ensemble), Indra Khariwala (Chirag Gupta, ensemble), Harry Lawler (Rodrick Heffley, ensemble), Sam Mandell (Fregley), Patrick McDermott (Greg Heffley *), Autumn Ness (Mom), Rue Norman (Mrs. Clayton, Fregley's Mom, ensemble), Sam Rosewarne (Bryce Anderson, overgrown kid, ensemble), Reed Sigmund (Dad), Sullivan "Sully" Sigmund (Manny Heffley *), Tic Treitler (Chris Hosey, ensemble), Huxley Westemeier (Greg Heffley), Mabel Weismann (Claire, ensemble), Matthew Woody (Lionel James, ensemble), Mason Yang (Charlie Davis, ensemble). *Appearing in alternating performances