Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Steppingstone's Phantom of the Auditorium is kicking off Artistic Director Mark Ferraro-Hauck's first full season at the helm. Ferraro-Hauck has signaled a shift to productions with broader audience appeal, while maintaining Steppingstone's mission to serve youth in its community through robust educational programming. Phantom of the Auditorium should prove to be a great choice to launch that shift, given the popularity of the title, the quality of the material, and the high spirits in which it is presented by a terrifically talented cast of (mostly) young performers.
With music by Danny Abosch, lyrics by Abosch and John Maclay, and book by Maclay, the show begins with a smartly staged, mood-setting opening number that lets us know we are in for some scary business, but also that it will all be in good fun. Maclay's book pretty well follows Stine's original. Set in Woods Middle School in what looks like Anytown, U.S.A., the story centers on the production of this year's school play. In a departure from past years, the drama teacher, Ms. Walker, has chosen a play that is scary (subject of another bouncy tune) called The Phantom. Outsider students and best friends forever, Zeke and Brooke, dream about getting lead roles (prompting another song cue). The odds look slim, as Zeke has little stage experience and the female leads have been dominated by Tina, the school's resident prima donna. To Zeke and Brooke's (though not the audience's) surprise, they get the leads. Zeke, who is by nature a practical joker, really goes overboard acting out as the villainous Phantom, while the more serious Brooke concentrates on learning her lines, and Tina fumes about being cast as Brooke's understudy, as well as being assigned to oversee the sets, lighting, and props.
Things start to go amiss when a rumor of a ghost thought to be haunting the school since a performance of this same play was attempted decades earlier is revealed. At first this rumor and thoughts that the play itself is cursed are scoffed at, but then onstage accidents begin to occur, and mysterious, threatening messages caution the young actors to leave "leave my home sweet home alone." Who could be doing this? Is it Zeke, the overzealous prankster? Tina, trying to sabotage the play to exact her revenge for not getting the lead? The creepy night janitor Emile, who lurks in the school's sub-cellar? The new boy, Brian, who is quickly drawn into a mutually felt attraction to Brooke? Or is there really a ghost?
That's all you'll get out of me, other than to say the answers are both satisfying and totally without logic. That those two can co-exist is testament to the good will with which the show and this endearing cast invite our suspension of disbelief, accepting for ninety minutes that things don't have to make sense to make a good storyand an enjoyable time. Director Dane Stauffer moves his troops through the storyline as if it all fits into the realm of the possible, with pacing and blocking that hold the audience's interest, including audiences like the one at the school-day performance I attended, composed primarily of young elementary school students and their chaperones. Choreographer Laura Mahler makes good use of her cast's exuberance and agility, with lively movement and cleverly composed stage pictures that add emphasis to the story and spark to the production.
John Maclay's book includes an abundance of jokes that are corny, but I found myself laughing, and does a decent job of entwining the play-within-the-play to create a unified plotline. Maclay and Abosch's witty lyrics are stronger than Abosch's music, but the songs are pleasing to hear and fit well within their story placement. If there are no particularly exceptional songs, the score does the job of carrying the show forward while entertaining, and the earnestness of the performances adds luster to their creators' work.
The cast includes two adult actors, Emily Villano as the effusive drama teacher Ms. Walker, and Todd O'Dowd as the menacing custodian Emile. Both do fine work, but it is the young performers who make striking impressions. Victoria Pekel has wonderful stage presence as Brooke, with a pleasing voice and persuasive acting skills. As goofy Zeke, Parker Miller displays great physicality and comedic sense. Michaela Long is winning as the ill-tempered Tin, with a strong voice to match Tina's iron-fisted persona, and Simon Baker makes Brian a likeable character, ably depicting the throes of an adolescent crush. The rest of the troupe of young actors do fine work in featured parts, most notably Mara Stein as a student obsessed with clowns, and others form an ensemble that sings, moves and reacts to the developing story, each attentive to their role in the overall production.
Tech credits are solid all around. Tom Mays' lighting design effectively conveys the varying degrees of "scariness" as the story winds its way around, and John Acarregui's sound design contributes to scary effects. Leazah Behrens has designed a clever two-level backstage set that allows the show space to expand for larger production numbers. The costumes (Lucas Skjaret) look like what middle school students generally wear, with appropriate costuming for the play-within-a-play. I personally got a kick out of Ms. Walker's flashy attire for her show's opening night performance.
With this production, Steppingstone provides a show that enlarges our range of local offerings for young audiences. If it is not the highest caliber of musical theater, it is passably entertaining, and well tuned for its target audience. The youthful energy, talent and confidence of its cast projects the message: theater is fun, theater is for everyone. For families with kids who love live theater and parents who want to instill a love for theater in their kids, Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium will do nicely.
R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium continues through October 29, 2017 at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults - $16.00; Seniors, children and youth - $12.00. Recommended for children in Grade 2 and up. For more information go to www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265.
Book: John Maclay, based on the book Goosebumps Phantom of the Auditorium by R. L. Stine; Lyrics: John Maclay and Danny Abosch; Music, Orchestrations and Arrangements: Danny Abosch; Director: Dane Stauffer; Music Director: Kris Stauffer; Choreographer: Laura Mahler; Set Design: Leazah Behrens; Costume Design: Lucas Skjaret; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Props Design: Brooke Nelson; Stage Manager: Kivan Kirk; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Dudley; Technical Director: Thelmore Jackson.
Cast: Simon Baker (Brian Colson), Doresa Brooks (Camille), Michaela Long (Tina Powell), Parker Miller (Zeke Matthews), Todd O'Dowd (Emile), Victoria Pekel (Brooke Rodgers), Devon Selmon (Corey), Mara Stein (Anna), Emily Villano (Ms. Walker), Graham Zemke (Steve). Ensemble: Ellie Augustine, Millie Fotsch, Ryder James, Nathan Niska, Parker Payne and Max Perdu.