With a charming production of The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Columbia Children’s Theatre brings to life a beloved character and his exciting escapades. I first learned about Flat Stanley when my visiting aunt arrived in South Carolina with a cutout of the character, which she photographed in various places for a grandchild’s school project. Decades later, I enjoyed sharing the “original adventures” book by Jeff Brown with my young daughter, indulging in a sense of wonder at the wide world and its possibilities. The whimsical nature of the Flat Stanley book series inspires lasting affection in readers; Columbia Children’s Theatre crafts a surprising and delightful world that entices theatregoers. As realized in the musical (with book by Timothy Allen McDonald and music and lyrics by McDonald, David Weinstein, Jonathan K. Waller, and Stephen Gabriel), the Lambchop parents enjoy a cozy family life with Stanley and his younger brother Arthur. After bedtime, the two boys take the audience on an exuberant “I wish I were” romp through cherished adventures (think Harry Potter and Star Wars) complete with light sabers and air guitar. Stanley’s “star wish” leads to his dimensional transformation after a fateful encounter with a mysterious bulletin board. He learns that the life of a “flat kid” has drawbacks (getting stuck in a tree when flown as a kite) as well as perks (mailing himself to Paris.) Clever wordplay transpires in the script, such as the “porkchop” versus “lambchop” confusion that delighted my daughter. Characters advise young audiences to “find a little adventure,” “write a letter and drop it in the mail,” and “make a star wish.”
Anthony Harvey as Stanley achieves genuine commitment to a child role without condescension, a true gift of a performance. He shares talents in physical comedy (the hilarious doctor’s exam) as well as an appealing voice, with a particularly poignant song while stuck in a tree. Harvey handles the flat costume with admirable confidence – who knew Flat Stanley could shake maracas and rock a time step, not to mention a kickline? As Arthur, Riley Smith dives into exuberant antics that delight the young audience; he avoids caricature by offering lovable honesty and real sweetness. Actors demonstrate versatility in diverse roles: Evelyn Clary plays a wacky postal worker and a serene Mona Lisa, while Julian DeLeon moves convincingly from sincere father to bumbling physician to flashy entertainer. Diane Gilbert, Rachel Glowacki, David Quay, Imani Ross-Jackson, and Elizabeth Stepp give vibrant portrayals of various characters that develop depth through nuanced ensemble work. Two different casts share the roles; additional performers are sure to be equally strong in a production of this caliber. (That second cast includes David Quay as Stanley, Ruth Glowacki as Mrs. Lambchop, Toni Moore as Mr. Lambchop, Elizabeth Stepp as Stanley’s brother Arthur, and Taylor- Noelle Hammond as Mrs. Cartero.)
“Why say it when I can show you in an extravagant musical number?” asks a Hollywood character; engaging songs and dances illuminate Stanley’s world with infectious vitality. Cindy Flach directs and choreographs her talented cast with creativity and ingenuity, and Paul Lindley II guides enjoyable singing voices with skillful music direction. The design team (Donna Harvey and Jim Litzinger) proves that Columbia Children’s Theatre really can take us anywhere: characters travel through the Lambchop home, a park, a doctor’s office, California, Paris, and Hawaii. Lambchop family members’ costumes and even their tabletop décor reflect a patriotic red, white, and blue motif. Forgotten lollipops stuck on top of the bulletin board illustrate the designers’ meticulous approach; details like these bring a child’s world alive onstage. Go see the show to find out how acting, directing, and design can collaborate on laugh-out-loud visual comedy with particular effectiveness in Stanley’s museum experience. CCT shows last season included marvelous puppetry (Knuffle Bunny, Goodnight Moon); Anthony Harvey’s puppet design maintains this high standard. Stage managers Ruth Mock and Susan Hitt keep the backstage domain moving with fast-paced fluidity and seamless transitions. Visual effects are very well done, especially the picture frame imagery and the lasting impact of Stanley’s unique and astonishing flatness.
But what do the kids think? The children at the matinee I attended were rapt with attention throughout the show. Light saber hijinks, surf music and “wipe-out” moves, sharp and sassy tap dancing, surprising mailbox revelations, and exciting pursuit of the “sneak thief” proved riveting for even the smallest viewer. My own five-year-old daughter, while skeptical before the big transformation (“Is Stanley REALLY going to be flat onstage?”), became firmly convinced of the production’s integrity: “My favorite part was when Flat Stanley got flat. I really love and appreciate this show. I think kids will like the show because it is cheerful.”
The mind-opening power of travel, discovery of adventure through sending and receiving mail, and lasting love of family will resonate with audiences of all ages. Through the ongoing development of Columbia Children’s Theatre, Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson, Managing Director Jim Litzinger, and their collaborators make our city a better place – to learn as part of a welcoming community, to raise a family, to love the arts. Thriving theatre for young audiences produced with gratifying commitment to quality in all areas: who could ask for anything more?
The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley runs through this Sunday, September 29. Call the box office at (803) 691-4548, or visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for ticket information.
~ Melissa Swick Ellington