Last weekend, the Main Street Players of Boone County wrapped up performances of their holiday musical, Babes in Toyland, and your Rockford Theater Examiner was there. The show is a little off the beaten path when compared to usual Christmastime theatre, but more variety is always welcome. One of the main differences is that this show is a melodrama. Understanding this fact is pretty important to its enjoyment. Were this a “normal” play (for lack of a better term), the performance would come off as exceedingly goofy, and perhaps a little off-putting. Once the style and its accompanying conventions and character archetypes are taken into consideration, though, the exaggerated performances make more sense.
All the traditional melodrama characters are present: the manly but sometimes dim-witted hero, the waifish damsel, the scheming villain, the dim-witted sidekicks. The actors embrace these characters well. Todd Hilliard as the heroic Alan probably gives the best performance in the play. He balances the swagger of his role with its occasional overconfidence, and his performances fits the mold of this character type quite well. The villainous counterpart of Barnaby is portrayed by Keith Burritt. Compared to some of his previous performances with MSP, Burritt gets very into his role and its various character quirks. It’s always good to see an actor grow. The object of both their affections is Mistress Mary, played by Jessica Tifft. She sighs and swoons as the damsel in distress should, and displays a pretty good singing voice that stands out in the cast. Also featured are Jenni Minarik and Sabrina Larson as Barnaby’s two gender-bent, oafish, vaguely pirate-like henchmen. The two are consistently humorous, and give each of their characters distinction, with Minarik being the “brains” ( a loose term) of the duo, and Larson more earnest. Other standouts include Evelyn Peterson’s bright and energetic Mother Goose, and the near entirety of the children’s ensemble. This is one of the rare productions where the various children are actually talented actors rather than space fillers, and their presence contributes legitimately to the production. There is not a weak link among Mother Goose’s various progeny, with each of the performers displaying ability on stage, a pleasant surprise. One never gets the feeling that they are there just for the sake of being there, an unfortunate commonality in many productions with significant youth roles. A definite kudos to these young actors, and to their director, Ronn Gordon, on his job of casting them well.
Overall, Gordon’s directing stays true to the melodrama of the script. He also makes very good use of the stage space and includes clever touches like having the actors interact with the audience to help disguise a significant scene change. However, there are elements that could be improved. The blocking seems to “pause” during musical numbers, when keeping more movement might have helped keep energy and momentum, and keep things more interesting. The choreography for the show is credited to Elizabeth Carner and Kirsten Didier, although the term “choreography” is used loosely here, as most songs just have the ensemble plant themselves downstage center and sing out to the audience. As a matter of fact, the show goes two entire musical sequences with the cast positively immobile, and it is not until the Gypsy characters’ number that we get legitimate dancing. Perhaps the argument could be made that this approach befits the melodrama style, or that the large number of actors makes choreographing the sequences with a filled stage space more difficult, but that doesn’t stop the musical numbers from getting boring much quicker than they should when the performers are relegated to a choir pose most of the time.
Aside from that however, the show is mostly a delight to look at. The backdrop from scenic designer Lon Hoegberg is very simply painted, almost cartoonish, but actually fits the storybook quality of its setting well. Hoegberg’s lighting design is also quite good, effectively contrasting the bright optimism of Mother Goose Land with the sinister qualities of a forest scene thanks to some nice gobo work, truly a testament to the effectiveness of good lighting design in setting of mood. The costuming of the show is also top notch, and a definite highlight (although no costumer credit could be found in the show’s program). The various mother goose characters are all bright and colorful, while keeping each familiar character distinguishable. Barnaby’s getup is the essence of a cartoon villain (with some amazing facial hair). Alan has hints of a medieval rogue in his costuming, the Gypsies jangle as they dance, the henchmen look suitably ridiculous, and the Toymaker evokes just enough of Santa Claus. Without a doubt, the costuming is comprehensively excellent for this show.
The production has some quality highlights (especially visually) that are commendable, but also some areas that could be improved. All in all, though, it was nice to see something more unique for the holidays among all the Christmas Carols and Miracle on 34th Streets that we’ve come to expect. That in itself is of merit, to be sure. All in all, a good holiday viewing choice, and one that might especially be good for families or children.
Main Street Players’ next production will be The Odd Couple, coming in February.