Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Renowned playwright and storyteller Kling has strung together a collection of anecdotes from a late 1960s summernot the summer of civil rights riots, Vietnam war protests, or dropping out and turning on in Haight Ashbury, but a summer of innocence among kids in a wholesome suburb where life is composed of exquisitely simple experiences that at the time feel life-changing. Maybe they are, but more than that, these stories are life-affirming.
Kling was born with a visible congenital defect on his left arm, and in 2001 lost all use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident. Knowing there are lots of kids in the audience, he walks on stage at the top of the show, asks the audience if they notice anything different about him, and then engages them in a brief exercise that totally normalizes our many similarities and differences. This gentle and completely honest engagement of his audience, reminiscent of the much-missed work of Mister (Fred) Rogers. With the mystery of his different arms out in the open and the odds of a five-year-distracted from the show as they ask the adult beside them "What's wrong with his arm?," the show is ready to begin.
Kling introduces us to his central character, nine-year-old Maurice (pronounced by one and all as Morris), though it is easy to suspect that Maurice's summer exploits draw a lot from the storyteller's childhood in the north Minneapolis suburbs. Along with Maurice, the episodes feature Mom, Dad, his older, trouble-seeking brother Marvin, his teenage sister Emily, and Norwegian-blooded Grandpa. He spans the season from the fraught minutes watching the clock in school, awaiting that glorious moment when summer vacation begins, to the return to school in the fall. In between we hear about the time Marv lures Maurice into a convenience store (against parental rules!), the family trip to great-uncle Alfie's funeral out in the country, Maurice's infatuation with a chicken named Joyce, Emily getting her driver's license, naming constellations and discovering new ones, and Marv's escapades at Norwegian Camp (complete with urgent letters home). We hear a ghost story told by Dad, a Norwegian folktale told by Grandpa, Maurice's insightful interview with a mosquito, and lots more, until the long summer days begin to shorten and the inevitable return to school cannot be stopped.
Kling is on stage in this Children's Theatre Company world premiere production for about 70 minutes, along with Victor Zupanc, the multi-talented musical director, composer, and sound designer. With a motley assemblage of instruments and found objects, Zupanc provides musical flourishes that underscore Kling's tales, creates sound effects, leads the audience in a couple of sing-alongs while playing the accordion and throwing in a few dance steps, andlike Klingmodels a grown man having a ridiculously good time without doing anything remotely dangerous, off-color, or unkind.
The other essential ingredient in The Best Summer Ever is the animation created by Liz Howls. The drawings are pretty basic, with lots of stick figures, but with huge dollops of wit and charm. They complement the home-spun feel of Kling's stories perfectly, and their appearance on a large screen inject vibrancy into Kling's stories and make The Best Summer Ever a much larger stage show than it otherwise would be, enough to fill up the large UnitedHealth Group proscenium stage.
In addition to his plays for adults, Kling has written other plays for young audiences, notably the Children's Theatre's productions of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Lyle the Crocodile, and Mississippi Panorama. As a storyteller, Kling authentically talks through the voice of his characters, not just telling us about kids in the late 1960s, but becoming one of those kids. For example, when he describes preparations for attending his great-uncle's funeral, he finishes by saying that when it was time to go, "I put on my suit. You have to wear a suit to a funeral, it turns out." In a simple way he tells us not only how he prepared for the event, but how that preparation was a discovery about things in the world he never before had known.
Minnesota Children's Theatre Company thoughtfully provides suggested age ranges for its productions. The Best Summer Ever is rated for ages 8 and up. There were a lot of children younger than that at the performance I attended, and while they no doubt missed many of the jokes, they picked up enough, along with the friendly warmth emitted by Messrs. Kling and Zupanc, to have a good time. I am guessing that the scary (though far less than many kids have seen) ghost story, and perhaps some of Marvin's misbehavior caused the show to be deemed less suited for kids under 8, but parental judgment should be the guide. I feel confident the 6 and 7-year-old boys who live next door to me would love it, and have no trouble dealing with the content.
As for upper age limits, there is none. Kling talks about childhood in the waning years of the baby boomer generation, and there are many out thereparents, grandparents and adults with no kids at allwho will identify fondly with those experiences, and laugh heartily at the witty, slightly warped way that Kling tells them. That was certainly the case for the audience at the UnitedHealth Stage when I was there, including me and my similarly aged friend. As adults, Kling reminds us of a time in our lives when a string of relatively small events each had such importance to us, shaking up our world, so thatas traumatic as some of them were at the momentwhen it was all passed it became a candy-coated package we could dub "the best summer ever".... till next year, at least.
The Best Summer Ever through July 29, 2018, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $32.00. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by age 8 and up.
Stories and Poems: Kevin Kling; Music and Lyrics: Victor Zupanc; Director: Peter C. Brosius; Lighting Design: Craig Gottschalk; Sound Designer: Sten Severson; Animation Design: Liz Howls; Dramaturg: Miriam Weisfeld; Music Consultant: Bill Harley; Stage Manager: Jane Heer; Stage Manager Intern: Lea Moore
Cast: Kevin Kling (storyteller), Victor Zupanc (musician).