Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Abominables was the result of a Children's Theatre Company commission to The Civilians, a Brooklyn-based theater company that creates what it calls "investigative theater." This entails mining the workings of specific realms of life outside the world of theater through site visits and extensive interviews. Civilians' plays have sprung forth from such investigative topics as the porn film industry, Bolivian women's prisons, global warming, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the confluence of evangelical church organizations in Colorado Springs. So why not youth hockey?
Thus charged, Civilians playwright/director Steve Cosson and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman went to work creating The Abominables. The result is a cheery musical that covers all the anticipated ground, puts a talented cast of youngsters on stage, and in bursts of energy, offers fine family entertainment.
The plot starts off with Mitch Munson, your standard hockey-driven middle schooler, poised as the highest ranked player on the A hockey team. Mitch's parents, Charlie and Ellen, anxiously pour every ounce of their attention toward his success, ignoring Mitch's two younger sisters Tracy and Lily. As the season begins, however, a new kid with unbelievable hockey skills arrives, edging Mitch out of his top dog status. In fact, Mitch doesn't make the A team at all, but is relegated to the indignity of being placed on the B team. His father points out that he may be better off as the best player on the B team rather than the worst player on the A team, but Mitch isn't buying it.
This would be a plausible, if conventional, plot set up, except for one thing. The new kid, Harry, is not merely a superior hockey player. He is an abominable snowmanthough his parents, sensitive to the lad's feelings, prefer he be called a Yeti. Those would be Hank and Judy, celebrity adventure travelers who found Harry abandoned while climbing in the Himalayas and adopted him. Wanting Harry to have a normal kid's life, and recognizing that hockey was his game, they traded travel and adventure for a flat, unexciting Minnesota town with a good hockey team.
The Abominables is cute, with some lively skating sequences, roller blades making acceptable substitutes for ice skates, bright design work, and committed performances. The story is simple enough to follow, as Mitch schemes to get Harry off the team, and no road map is needed to know that we should root for Harry to be successful and find a place among his A teammates, as well as for Mitch to learn the error of his bitterness and self-pity. This being a Children's Theatre show, we can be pretty confident that the end will come out on the right side of decency, generosity, and fair play.
It is disappointing, however, that the creators of this work dragged in as far-afoot a device as Mitch being upstaged by a Yeti. That would be a hard blow for any kid to take. There surely is a storyline involving actual human beings that could address, in a heart-felt way, the pangs of disappointment when your dedication and hard work go unrewarded, and the loss of social status and social contacts that follows, with relationships between characters that don't require flight from the real world.
Mitch, the central character, is hard to like. Before his fall he seems like a nice kid, but in fact, his focus is very self-serving. As the team's top player, it so happens that what is good for him also helps the team, so he is not called upon to think about others' needs. His hostility toward Harry and constant self-pity just make him more annoying as the show progresses, and a last minute act on Mitch's part that seems intended to show his true (i.e., good) colors, does not convince. It seems as likely to be his chance to prove that he has the goods to retake the top spot as an act taken for the sake of the team.
A great score might have buoyed the occasion, but, I am sorry to say, The Abominables' score is largely forgettable. The music is pleasant upon hearing, but immediately fades from memory. The lyrics come across as sung dialogue, lacking the wit or imagery that make song lyrics a different form of expression than spoken text. The closing number, "We Are All Losers," seems an attempt to close on an upbeat note, but this "lesson learned" is not given a logical context. It has been widely noted that the composer Michael Friedman (with a long record of accomplishments, including the musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) tragically died just a week before the show's opening. Friedman left behind an abundance of work to serve as his legacy, but I fear The Abominables adds little to that.
The performances go a long way in bringing the story to life despite its flaws. Henry Constable does a solid job as Mitch, a convincingly self-centered young man who deserves the pain he is dealt. His nemesis Harry, as played by Ryan Colbert, projects a sweet, generous, and introspective natureall qualities that make us root for him. Colbert's lanky physical frame carries the stature of a Yeti well, towering over the other boys on the team, but with a bit of slouch typical of kids that age trying not to stand out too much from their peers.
Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund catch the right tone of obnoxiously competitive hockey parents, caught off guard when their son is derailed, and barely cognizant of their two other children. Elise Benson and Bradley Greenwald do nicely as Harry's adoptive parents, Benson sweetly supportive of her son without being abrasive, Greenwald drawing laughs as the pompous Hank, clueless in making the transition from celebrity traveler to just a dad.
Natalie Tran gives another strong performance a Mitch's middle sister Tracy, who carries on with her B-team hockey despite (or maybe thanks to) her parents' inattention to her. She comes across as the most mature of the major characters. Valerie Wick plays Mitch and Tracy's youngest sister Lily, while Alejandro Vega is Harry's younger brother Freddy. Both are precocious and charming and make a winning pair as they team up to have hockey-free adventures of their own.
While most of the costumes look like standard issue hockey gear and off the rack winter wear, costume designer Jessica Pabst created inventive Yeti costumes for Harry, other Yeti characters, and Yeti-themed cheerleaders. Andrew Boyce's set aptly creates the feel of a sports arena, with flats that slide in and out to effectively create Mitch's bedroom, the Munson family kitchen, and the lobby and corridor of a hotel in Thunder Bay, where the big game is being played. A scene set in a field of snow is greatly enhanced by Jake DeGroot's lighting, which also animates scenes of hockey play.
Despite my objections, I have no doubt that a large audience will greatly enjoy The Abominables. It strikes a chord close to home for many of us, and includes requisite digs at "Minnesota Nice" and at Canada. It easily holds the audience's attention for two lively hours, is well performed and handsomely staged. My disappointment is largely that there was an opportunity for something more, something that approached this topic in a more believable way rather than in this cartoon-like devise, something more universal and closer to the genuine joys and pains that accompany our society's growing obsession with youth sports.
The Abominables continues at the Children's Theatre Company through October 15, 2017, at 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $15.00 - $59.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by ages 8 and up.
Book and Direction: Steve Cosson; Music and Lyrics: Michael Friedman; Choreography: Joe Chvala; Music Director: Andrew Fleser; Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Jake DeGroot; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Willy DeWeese; Fight and Hockey Choreography: Ryan Bourque; Vocal Coach: Bradley Greenwald; Stage Manager: Stacy McIntosh; Assistant Director: Leah Jensen; Assistant Stage Managers: Nate Stanger and Sonja Thorson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Katie Deutsch. Produced in association with The Civilians
Cast: Carter Bannwarth (Ryan), Elise Benson (Judy), Stephanie Bertumen (Hockey Mom/Mama Yeti, ensemble), Ryan Colbert (Harry), Henry Constable (Mitch Munson), Bradley Greenwald (Hank), Zachary Hodgkins (Zach), Doug Neithercott (Coach/Papa Yeti/ensemble), Autumn Ness (Ellen Munson), Reed Sigmund (Charlie Munson), Natalie Tran (Tracy Munson), Alejandro Vega (Freddy), Valerie Wick (Lily Munson). Hockey Ensemble: Logan Baker, Sage Brahmstedt, Hunter Conrad, Meredith "Mimi" Kol-Balfour, Evan Latta, Peder Lindell, and Richard Norman.