Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Juster's story, adapted by Susan Nanus, centers on young and bored Milo, who thinks that learning is a waste of time. When a phantom tollbooth appears in his room one afternoon he gets in his toy car and drives through the tollbooth's gate and sets off on a world of discovery. Milo travels to the Lands of Wisdom and learns some lessons about the meaning of words and numbers along the way. He discovers that there was an argument between the Mathemagician and his brother King Azaz, who disagreed over the importance of numbers and words, that led to their daughters, the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, to be banished to the Castle in the Air. Through a series of events, and having picked up skills and knowledge along the way, Milo finds himself along with Tock, his trusty sidekick who just happens to be a talking watch dog, and the insect Humbug on a quest to rescue the princesses and restore rhyme and reason into the fantasy land.
This abridged theatrical version of Juster's book drops numerous characters and locales but the streamlined adaptation, which runs just over 60 minutes, works well for the stage and is a good length for young audience members as an introduction to the theatre. The messages and themes that Juster weaves so beautifully into his novel about the importance of the meaning of words, as well as his hilarious and amusing use of puns and subtle wordplay, are prevalent throughout the stage production.
Under Dwayne Hartford's fun and upbeat direction, the entire cast excel at playing the various imaginative characters in the story. Rudy Ramirez is appropriately childlike, grounded and bored yet inquisitive as Milo, while Kate Haas and Debra K. Stevens are sublime in several parts, including, under heavy wigs and costumes and with the use of comical voices, delivering expert portrayals of the Mathemagician and King Azaz, respectively. Micah Jondel DeShazer makes a very sturdy, lovable and loyal watchdog, and Tony Latham is a hoot as the Humbug.
Rebecca Akins' costume, mask, and puppet designs are sumptuous and add a colorful, magical sense to the entire production, which includes several creative set elements by Jeff Thomson and fun projections by Daniel Cariño. Tim Monson's lighting and the music and sound design from Christopher Neumeyer echo the fun and adventurous shifts in tone throughout Milo's journey.
Childsplay's production of The Phantom Tollbooth, which has a great cast and excellent creative elements, is a fun theatrical endeavor full of inspiration and imagination. Yet at its heart, it never loses sight of Juster's important message that the importance of learning and the ability to face your obstacles head on and learn from your mistakes can turn a boring life into an adventure.
The Phantom Tollbooth at Childsplay runs through October 15th, 2017, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe AZ, with performances on Saturdays at 1 pm and 4 pm and Sundays at 1 pm Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office 480-350-2822 (ext. 0).
Written by Susan Nanus, based on the book by Norton Juster