Dallas Children's Theater
Director – Artie Olaisen
Costume Design – Lyle Huchton
Scenic, Video & Props Design – H. Bart McGeehon
Edward Tulane Dolls Design – Marc W. Vital
Lighting Design – Jason Lynch
Stage Manager – Douglass Burks
Original Music Composition & Arrangement – Johnny Lee & Sonny Franks
The Traveler – Georgia Clinton
The Woman – Steph Garrett
The Man – Sonny Franks
The Musician, Edward's consciousness – Johnny Lee
The Other – Haulston Mann
Reviewed Performance 3/20/2016
Reviewed by Amanda Edwards, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
A while back, my friend Suzy loaned me a book that she had read with her daughter and told me I had to read it. It was called “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” I took the book somewhat unenthusiastically, as my daughter and I already had a long list of books lined up. But, Suzy didn’t give up. Every now and then, she would ask if we’d read it yet. When I got tired of telling her no, I finally picked it up. From the first chapter, my daughter and I were captivated by Kate DiCamillo’s beautiful and unusual book.
It is the story of a china rabbit purchased from a boutique doll shop in France and given to a little girl named Abilene on her 7th birthday by her grandmother, complete with an entire wardrobe of fine doll clothes, including hats, shoes, silk pajamas and a pocket watch. Abilene adores her new china rabbit and names him Edward Tulane. Edward is accepted into the Tulane family wholeheartedly and included in all of the family activities and conversations; the china rabbit, however, is completely self-absorbed, with no thought or love for anyone but his own handsome self. Although Abilene remains oblivious to his disdain, Grandmother Pellegrina is not fooled by Edward Tulane. After telling her granddaughter and Edward a cautionary bedtime story about what happens to those who only love themselves, she takes Edward aside, looks him in the eyes and tells him in her thick Italian accent, “You deesappoint me!” While on an ocean voyage to London with his family, Edward is accidentally thrown from the ship and lost in the ocean for many months. The words of Pellegrina echo in Edward’s mind throughout his accidental travels, from Egypt Street to the bottom of the ocean, to a fisherman’s cabin, to the top of a garbage heap, train-hopping with a hobo and his dog, to working as a scarecrow, pecked at by birds and mocked by the very stars he used to admire. From there, he finds himself cuddled tightly inside the arms of a sick child, then performing on street corners for change, and finally, he returns, full-circle, to a doll shop—a much different rabbit than he once was—waiting patiently until he is discovered by a woman searching for a unique toy to give to her daughter.
Dwayne Hartford’s inventive adaptation is a work of magic. It fully captures the imagination of adults and children alike, sweeping them away on this unforgettable epic journey that is, at times, heartbreaking and—ultimately—incredibly fulfilling. Hartford treats DiCamillo’s book as delicately as he would…a china rabbit. He lets the story take center stage, supported but not overwhelmed by only the few actors, artists, and musicians needed to bring the story to life.
After receiving the author’s approval for the script, the play was originally produced by the Arizona children’s theatre company, Childsplay, where Hartford serves as resident playwright. Directed by Childsplay founder, David Saar, it opened to outstanding reviews on October 20, 2013 at the Tempe Center for the Arts Studio. It has since been performed in a scattering of children’s theatre companies throughout the United States, and I guarantee it will be performed for many generations to come. Dallas theatre-goers have the great privilege of being among the first audiences to see this fascinating tale come to life on stage. This adaptation is not a complete dramatization. The story is a narrated by The Traveler, and the scenes are acted out by the cast in the imaginative way a child plays with his or her toys, using the space and materials at hand. For example, the flaps of an aviator cap cannot truly pass for dog ears, but this is exactly the sort of resourcefulness that children display when toys are limited. Part of the magic of this production is that it celebrates the imagination and teaches modern children the ancient art of pretend play, which is too often forgotten nowadays.
Though Hartford’s play is scripted for four actors, director Artie Olaisen added The Other to help play male roles (and guitar parts) that would have otherwise been played by female cast members. It was the right decision. There were plenty of male roles to play, and I do not think the play would have been as enjoyable without all five of its talented cast. Olaisen’s cast includes one youthful and one middle-aged actor of each gender, in addition to the role of The Musician.
The story takes place in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. H. Bart McGeehon has designed a stage with multiple levels of wooden platforms surrounded by vintage suitcases and a few wooden crates. The crates were used for seating, and the suitcases of various sizes were put to good use as stairs from one platform to another and as costume and prop storage. The set looked like a small loading dock, but it functioned as a springboard for the imagination. Behind the stage was a massive backdrop that extended high above and past the edges of the stage. Upon it, McGeehon created a glorious night sky of twinkling stars. He also used it, here and there, to project other amazing views along the miraculous journey, such as the water effects when Edward was thrown into the ocean.
The warm, cozy light design by Jason Lynch added to the vintage feel of the setting. In each scene, lighting changed with the time of day and the location. The spotlight stayed on the actors who were speaking, while the others discreetly changed costume pieces and props. Lynch’s use of colored lighting added to the mood of each scene, but it was so smoothly executed that it never stood out. The lighting served to enhance each scene, and it never overpowered.
Marco E. Salinas’s sound design was excellent. The Baker Theatre is designed acoustically, and the actors are professionally trained, so amplification may not have been needed. I didn’t notice microphones or instrument cables, though there may have been stage mics somewhere. But, if they were there, I didn’t notice them [Salinas achieved the goal of every sound tech…he was invisible].
Throughout the play, there is music in the background, composed & arranged by Johnny Lee & Sonny Frank and performed by the actors on stage. Usually, the background music is played in a country blues or folk style; The Man and The Musician play guitar most of the time, sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes as a duet. Other featured instruments include the banjo, harmonica, and what may have been a bowed psaltery. The unpretentious score perfectly establishes the time period and conveys the emotions of the characters.
In Act II, the sound, scenic and light designers create a spellbinding few moments where Edward is stuck in an after-life of sorts, in between the world and the heavens. The music, lighting and projections in this scene are…out of this world.
Period costumes were designed with great care by Lyle Huchton. The Traveler and The Woman were dressed in light floral-printed cotton collared dresses with long sleeves with knit and lace accessories. The well-groomed Musician looked dapper in the colorful silk, satin, and velvet that matched the finery worn by Edward, the china rabbit. The other male characters were dressed in cotton, tweed, denim, wool and knit earth tones. The Man was dressed in a country style with a farmer’s hat and a tasseled knit scarf, and The Other had more of a newsboy look, with a tweed cap and neckerchief. Costume accessories were traded out each time a character played a new role. I loved the choice of the 1930s leather aviator cap to represent dog ears.
Because there was not time to change Edward’s costume between scenes, and because Edward got more and more beat up as the show went along, several identical dolls were used and inconspicuously exchanged as needed. The Edward Tulane dolls were designed by Marc W. Vital, whose designs closely resemble the illustrations in the novel.
Johnny Lee offers up an entertaining and moving performance as Edward Tulane’s consciousness. He usually stands or sits behind the doll or off to the side and speaks his mind, because, being a doll, Edward Tulane cannot actually speak or express himself. Lee’s delightful interpretation delivers the majority of humor in the play, as he communicates his frustrations with little things, like having to sleep facing the wrong direction, being forced to wear a dress, and—later—expressing his contempt for the man who dares to criticize his “perfect dress.”
Steph Garrett gave a stellar performance as The Woman. She begins the play as Abilene, the little girl who names Edward and showers him with her love. Next, Garrett plays Nellie, the fisherman’s wife grieving the loss of her child. The tearful, “Hush Little Baby” that she sang to Edward got me all choked up. Then, the actress had me laughing with her next character: the hobo’s canine companion, Lucy. Hopping around enthusiastically and unabashedly with her tongue out and barking, carrying the toy rabbit in her mouth and resting her head on him as she lay at her master’s feet, Garrett captured all the eagerness of a dog happy just to be with her best friend. And, again, I was in tears as she played Sarah Ruth, a 4 year-old suffering from tuberculosis, comforted by the presence of her beloved china rabbit “Jangles.” In Garrett’s final scene (which I’m not going to spoil for you), I was left with cathartic tears streaming down my face and dripping from my chin; it was like I was reading the book all over again. Steph Garrett has a rare gift for empathy which shines through in her performances. She not only expresses what her characters are going through…she feels it. And she makes the audience feel it, too.
Georgia Clinton is The Traveler, who narrates the play, and she does so beautifully. She performs various other roles, as well. Clinton was perfect for the role of Abilene’s old Italian grandmother, Pellegrina, and she was very funny as the wealthy British passenger on the RMS Queen Mary, who was simply agog upon meeting such a singular toy as Edward. Clinton’s roles are more severe than Garrett’s. She plays Lolly, the fisherman’s daughter who throws Edward in the garbage heap, not about to allow a china doll to bewitch her parents into treating him like their child. She also plays the farm woman who names Edward “Clyde” and hangs him from a pole to serve as a scarecrow.
Sonny Franks plays The Man. His main characters include Lawrence the fisherman and Bull the hobo. He also plays a lot of the guitar music in the show as well as some other small parts. Franks brings realism to the play, as he seems to have stepped out of the Depression right onto the Baker Theater stage. His characterizations of Lawrence and Bull are warm and satisfying. They go down easy like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. Then, he plays the abusive father to Sarah Ruth and Bryce. It’s a good thing he is on a different platform, because his domineering stance and emotionless violence was rather intimidating. The abuse scene is staged artistically so that it captures the emotions and essence of the story without frightening the children in the audience. It is his shadow on the backdrop that seems to reach out and strike his son, Bryce.
The role of Bryce is played by The Other in this cast, Haulston Mann. Mann’s scenes as Bryce, the brother of Sarah Ruth, are heart-wrenchingly sad, and he performs them with every bit of tenderness they require in a child-like voice full of hope and innocence. Each role Mann plays is completely different, and he displays an astonishing level of versatility from one scene to the next. He ends the show as Lucius Clarke, the doll shop owner who repairs Edward. Every trace of the child Bryce is gone, and Mann fully embodies the new character.
It is almost unbelievable that such an emotionally rich tale, full of heartbreak and loss, could entertain children. But, that is part of the magic of this beautiful story. It impacts children and their parents in different ways and on different levels. Although I had tears pouring down my face, the children left the theatre with big smiles. I thought the Depression-era setting, the folk music, the mature themes and the lack of potty humor would make the play boring for children, but I did not hear one restless, fidgety child the entire time. The children and their parents were transfixed; not a sound could be heard from the audience. All were equally invested in the fate of the little anti-hero who learns to love and lose, and love again.
If you and your family only see one show this year, make it this one. You’ll be glad you did.
THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE
Dallas Children’s Theater, The Baker Theater in The Rosewood Center for Family Arts, 5938 Skillman St., Dallas, TX 75231
Runs through April 10, 2016
** No performances Easter weekend **
Performances are Saturday, April 2, 2016 at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 9, 2016 at 4:30 p.m., and Sundays, April 3 and 10, 2016 at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $17-$26 and can be purchased at the Rosewood Center Box Office at 214-740-0051, by Fax at 214-978-0118, or Online at https://www.dct.org