Tag Archives: Ron Lee McGill

AMOS McGEE Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: Children’s Theatre of Charlotte presents A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

 

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

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The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.

Little Discoveries Yield Big Laughs in “The Snowy Day”

Review:  The Snowy Day

By Perry Tannenbaum

Faced with the problem of turning Ezra Jack Keats’ children’s classic, The Snowy Day, into an hour-long stage production, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and adaptor Jerome Hairston have resisted the temptations of bloating the story with needless pabulum or stretching it with irrelevant songs. Instead, they’ve balled up the original story Keats wrote about Peter with subsequent titles he wrote about his urban hero – including Whistle for Willie, Goggles! and A Letter to Amy – into a sizable snowball.

The mighty tetralogy ran a lordly 44 minutes at the performance I attended. Gauging by the delighted reception I saw last Saturday afternoon, I’d say both the length and the treatment were ideal.

Both the scenic and costume design, by Alessia Carpaca and Ketti Shum Mcrae respectively, seem eye-poppingly close to the original Keats illustrations, especially the iconic red snowsuit. Stage director Mark Sutton seems to have horded all the latitude – and fun – to himself before generously divvying it up among his cast.

All of them seem to having a great time at the Wells Fargo Playhouse in ImaginOn. Lydia Williamson not only gets to regress into childhood, she also swaps genders to play Peter in all four stories. Crunching the freshly fallen snow, puffing up agonizingly in attempts to whistle, sporting new goggles Peter is lucky enough to find, and stressing over his birthday invitation to Amy are all prodigious romps for Williamson to feast on.

Abigail Aukerman has the most chameleonic outing, appearing as Mom from time to time when she isn’t branching out into neighbor kid Archie and first crush Amy. Ron Lee McGill remains Dad in an oddball straw hat, hardly changing at all when he’s propelling Peter’s dopey dog, Willie. McGill also gets to chip in some narration – and assorted stagehand work while Peter’s adventures are in progress.

Much of the comedy works because we view it from an older, wiser perspective. We know what will happen when Peter stomps into the snow, though Sarah Tundermann’s projections are a nifty confirmation. And we can anticipate Peter’s heartbreak when he wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that the snowball he stowed away in the pocket of his snowsuit that afternoon has vanished. How does that happen?

So it’s nice to find that nobody in The Snowy Day And Other Stories is cajoling us to participate or react. We take it all in privately, frequently laughing or marveling at what we see. That’s exactly what Peter is doing, except for those delicious moments when we’re a couple of steps ahead of him.