Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Also see Gil's review of Heaven Can Wait

Angelica Howland, Tommy Strawser, and Jon Gentry
Most of us have experienced our share of good teachers and bad ones throughout our educational years. Childsplay opens their 2015/2016 season with a comedy featuring two extremely different educators, one of the absolute worst and one of the best teachers ever. The wild and whacky Sideways Stories from Wayside School, based on the books by Louis Sachar, has many gifted Childsplay regulars in the cast, spirited direction, and colorful, inventive design elements. Childsplay scores again with this high-spirited and fun production.

Wayside School had a bit of an issue during its construction. Supposed to be a one-story school with thirty class rooms, the builder misread the plans, and built the school vertically instead of horizontally, so the school is now 30 stories tall, with one classroom on each floor. With a few supernatural elements, including the fact that the 19th floor doesn't seem to exist (or does it?), the kids on the 30th floor are ruled by a witch of a teacher, Mrs. Gorf, who likes to turn unruly students into apples, with plans to bake them into a pie. When Mrs. Gorf finds the tables turned on her, the school sends a replacement teacher, Mrs. Jewls, who is Gorf's exact opposite, full of sweetness. However, things take a turn for the worse when Gorf's son shows up to avenge his mother and the kids find they must join together to outwit the evil Gorf offspring.

Adapted by John Olive, the play takes elements from Sachar's books to form a cohesive two act play. While the story does get a little dark in the middle of the second act, it is entrenched in a playful sense, so even smaller children shouldn't be too frightened. Also, while the play isn't too serious, it does touch upon the message of teamwork.

As is usual with a Childsplay production, the cast and creative elements are top notch. Jon Gentry is deliciously evil as Mrs. Gorf, and returns later as both Gorf's son and the school's funny French therapist Mr. Pickle. Debra K. Stevens is sublime as the always chirpy Mrs. Jewls, having a sweet and sunny disposition, full of sincerity, as well as a clear and strong desire to teach her kids and teach them well. Stevens is also perfect when her character encounters a little issue that changes her teaching style. As the kids in the class, Tommy Strawser, Katie McFadzen, Yolanda London, Michael Thompson, and Angelica Howland all shine, and are appropriately childlike with exaggerated expressions and excitement about the events unfolding around them. They all have a lot of fun with the playful, mysterious elements of the script. Strawser is especially comical as the conflicted Myron, the young boy who is obsessed with touching McFadzen's character's long pigtails. Eric Boudreau is hilarious as Louis, the yard teacher, who has the casual, laid back delivery and accent of a California surfer dude.

Director Dwayne Hartford plays up the mysterious moments without ever letting it get too spooky, and instills plenty of fun in the playful moments. Aaron Jackson's set design is full of muted pastel colors and crazy scenic pieces that play up the supernatural elements of the story. D. Daniel Hollingshead's costumes are vibrant and colorful and Christopher Neumeyer has come up with some imaginative sound effects.

Brimming with fun characters, and whacky, supernatural plot points, as well as the always important message about the value of working together as a team, Sideways Stories from Wayside School is a great start to Childsplay's 39th season.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School at Childsplay runs through October 18th, 2015, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0).

Adapted by John Olive, based on the books by Louis Sachar Directed by Dwayne Hartford
Scenic Design: Aaron Jackson
Costume Design: D. Daniel Hollingshead
Wig Design: Katherine Mammana
Lighting Design: Jennifer Setlow
Sound Design: Christopher Neumeyer
Choreographer: Caroline Wagner
Stage Manager: Sarah G. Chanis

Mrs. Gorf, Mr. Gorf, Mr. Pickle, Sammy: Jon Gentry
Myron: Tommy Strawser
Leslie, Miss Valooosh: Katie McFadzen
Rondi: Yolanda London
Dameon: Michael Thompson
Bebe: Angelica Howland
Louis: Eric Boudreau
Mrs. Jewls: Debra K. Stevens

Photo: Tim Trumbule

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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