Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Corduroy is a teddy bear in green corduroy overalls. He is named by Lisa, a little girl who falls in love with the bear she spots on a shelf as her mother is dragging her out of Freeman's Department Store five minutes before closing time. Lisa begs mother to buy the bear for her, but mother has no money left. Besides, mother notes, he is rather worn looking, pointing out that a button is missing from one of his overall straps. After the store closes, Corduroy comes to life. He hopes Lisa will come back to be his friend but fears that she will not be able to have him unless he can replace the missing button. His search for a button takes him throughout the store, venturing into departments he never dreamed of. At each stop, he causes havoc and draws the attention of the store's comical Night Watchman, who assumes there is an intruder up to no good. The only clue the Night Watchman has is that at each "crime scene," the intruder has left that same teddy bear, dressed in his green overalls.
At Lisa's home we learn that she has been having a hard time making friends at her new school. She is certain that Corduroy would be a very good friend and begs mother to let her do extra chores to earn the money to buy Corduroy. Mother agrees, but Lisa's attempts at doing extra chores do not work out well. Lisa has used up all her chances, but she manages to win mother over anyway. The next day they return to Freeman's Department Store. But Corduroy has been in one fix after another with the Night Watchman all night long. Will he back on his shelf in the toy department when Lisa runs in to buy him?
The play is structured with simple scenes that alternate between Lisa and her mother's heartwarming home life and the slapstick antics of Corduroy (who, when he comes to life, becomes big as life in the person of Dean Holt) and the Night Watchman. Without meaning to, as he passes through different parts of the store, Corduroy brings stacked items tumbling down and turns on electrical devices, including a vacuum cleaner with a mind of its own that becomes one of the show's best running gags. All the while, the Night Watchman is in pursuit. It is classic cat and mouse chase stuff, and delirious fun. The three-year-olds sitting near me were having a ball, but so were my wife and I.
It helps to have a comic genius like Dean Holt on hand. Holt is a marvel at physical comedy, and his facial expressions convey all the hope, or sadness, or confusion or delight in the world. The Night Watchman role is to be played by the always splendid Reed Sigmund, but Sigmund had been sidelined by a hand injury opening week. At the performance I attended, the Night Watchman was played by Brian Sostek, one of the Twin Cities' go-to guys for choreography and movement. Sostek was phenomenal, imbuing the sad-sack Night Watchman with a wobbly gait and an accent that sounded like a cross between Inspector Gadget and Curly Joe on the Three Stooges. Based on his past superb work, most recently as CTC's Grinch, I have no doubt Sigmund will be terrific when he returns to the part.
The home scenes between Lisa and her mother are played more realistically and convey an emotional heart, but Lisa's well-meant attempts to do household chores also provide a great deal of good-humored fun, as things seem to go from bad to worse. Lisa is played by Ileri Okikiolu, a high school student making her Children's Theatre debut. She conveys Lisa's tenderness and longing for a friend, while also handling the slapstick around her household mishaps with comic flare. As mother, Lauren Davis shows both the weariness of a tired mom trying to make ends meet and keep the household intact, and the abiding love for her child that pushes her to give in, in spite of herself.
There are two other cast members, referred to as Mannequins, who pose, mannequin-like, in the department store scenes, but in between scenes glide set pieces on and off stage, doing so in a rollicking manner that feels more like a circus juggling act than a set change. Played by Meredith "Mimi" Kol-Balfour and Keegan Robinson, they are a vital part of the high-energy good will that permeates this show. The way they stage the clean-up of a disastrously messy stage during intermission, drawing active involvement from young audience members, is priceless. If you can help it, do not exit at intermission until you have seen this for yourself.
Director Peter C. Brosius has staged Corduroy with the heart of a child and the mind of a savvy showman. The sensibility is light and innocent, effusing good will and hope, but the production moves with slick pacing and confidence. The design elements are first class in every department. Trevor Bowen's costumes for Corduroy, the Night Watchman, and the Mannequins are delightful. Torry Bend provides a backdrop that seems to have been ardently colored in with crayons, extremely clever and somewhat fanciful depictions of department store settings, and appropriately simple representations of Lisa's home. The lighting by Craig Gottschalk depicts changing shades of light upon the stealthy all-night action in the store.
Victor Zupanc has composed a comical background score that sounds like Corduroy hop-scotching on a xylophone. I have to add that among the unmapped sound effects are the joyous laughs and squeals of the children in the audience, expressing their utter delight and astonishment at this feast of storytelling by means of words, movement, acting and design.
Corduroy was published in 1968. Though its writer-illustrator, Don Freeman, was white, it was one of the first mainstream children's books with leading characters (Lisa and her mother) who are African American. It is beloved by many (full disclosure, we had a copy in our home when our children were growing up). Its enduring popularity can be affirmed by the fact that it was named in a poll conducted by the National Education Association in 2007 as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children," and in 2012 was listed by School Library Journal as one of the "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time.
In a new Corduroy book by the actress Viola Davis called Corduroy Takes a Bow, set for release this fall, Corduroy will wind up on stage! But we have Corduroy on stage right now, so why wait? I will wager that you will leave Corduroy on stage at the Children's Theatre Company with more laughs, broader grins, and a warmer heart than you have had in a very long time.
Corduroy, through May 20, 2018, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $54.00. Discounts for seniors (age 62+), students, children and military adults. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 <(612)%20874-0400> or go to childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by pre-school and up.
Adapted for the stage by Barry Kornhauser, based on the books Corduroy and Pockets for Corduroy by Don Freeman; Director: Peter C. Brosius; Composer and Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Scenic Design: Torry Bend; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Craig Gottschalk Stage Managers: Chris Schweiger and Jane Heer; Assistant Directors: Ava Egertson and Alex Goebel; Assistant Stage Manager: Chandler Jordan Hull; Stage Manager Intern: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell.
Cast: Lauren Davis (Mother), Dean Holt (Corduroy), Meredith Mimi Kol-Balfour (Mannequin) Ileri Okikiolu (Lisa), Keegan Robinson (Mannequin), Reed Sigmund (Night Watchman).