Chicago Theatre Review
A Child’s Journal Springs To Life
The Year I Didn’t Go to School – Chicago Children’s Theatre
Back in 2002, children’s author/illustrator Giselle Potter composed a much-loved picture book that’s many things. It’s an autobiography, an Italian travelogue and a much-loved story about what it means to be part of a family. But, above all else, this book, and this gorgeous musical adaptation by Heidi Stillman and Caroline Macon, is a celebration of the magical power of art and creativity. In Chicago Children’s Theatre’s affectionate and beautifully directed and performed production, this picture book bursts into life.
Faithfully fashioned from the artist’s 40-page story, which was inspired by the journal that seven-year-old Giselle Potter kept while touring Italy with her family, this tale is as warm and wonderful as it is inspiring. Both the book and play open with Giselle sitting atop one of the “four huge steamer trunks filled with puppets, masks and musical instruments,” explaining that for one year she, and her younger sister Chloe, didn’t go to school. Instead they toured all over Italy with their parents while performing their improvised circus. The tiny theatrical company was called The Mystic Paper Beasts. “Mystic,” Giselle explains, is derived from Mystic, Connecticut, the family’s home; “Paper Beasts” comes from the papier-mache puppets and masks worn by the actors.
At the airport, Giselle’s grandparents, Alice and Fuller, bid farewell to Dad, Mom and their two young grandchildren. But before they board the plane, Fuller presents Giselle with a journal, so that she can record every moment of her journey. Then, when she returns home in a year, the little girl will be able to recall and share all of her adventures. That journal, which is the basis for the picture book, comes to life in this episodic play flavored with music, puppets and circus acts.
As the little girl records her experience with detail and affection, Heidi Stillman’s production makes the play look and sound as if the picture book has sprung to life before our eyes. From Daniel Ostling’s simple, but effective, scenic and lighting design, to Emily Breyer’s carefully constructed props; from Rick Sims’ original music and sound effects, to Mara Blumenfeld’s picture perfect costumes, every aspect is faithful to the book’s illustrations.
Four excellent young actresses share the roles of Giselle and little Chloe. While Emily Zimmerman and Ava Tommasone play the leads at certain performances, fourth-graders Samantha Rae Jenkins and sweet little Audrey Edwards astounded as Giselle and Chloe at the press opening. They, like the adult cast surrounding them, are strong, honest, multitalented actors who make each word and emotion clearly understood. Every actor in this cast, beginning with the two children, infuse the production with warmth and a joie de vivre. Matthew C. Yee, a standout in CCT’s “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure” and Lookingglass Theatre’s “Treasure Island,” is wonderful as Dad. His charismatic charm and musical talent fills the entire stage. Lindsey Noel Whiting, the dazzling star of Lookingglass Theatre’s recent “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth,” brings a bundle of talent and youthful, maternal affection for her family to the role of Mom. Assuming multiple roles, including Grandma and Grandpa, are the talented, versatile Julie Greenberg and Adrian Danzig; and appropriately named Aerial Emery sparkles as a Circus Artist who impresses one and all with her hoop dream performance.
This warmhearted, thoroughly enjoyable adaptation is having its world premiere here in Chicago. Any child already familiar with Giselle Potter’s autobiographical picture book will recognize the characters and episodes from her year-long Italian adventure. Children new to this story may want to revisit it by borrowing it from their local library or perhaps purchasing their own copy to take home (for sale in the lobby). The playbill, that comes with every ticket, even features some of the more memorable characters as coloring pages. Audiences may leave the theatre hungering for spaghetti and pizza, but they’ll certainly exit shouting “Fantastico!” and “Che grande, che bello!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 4-19 by Chicago Children’s Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by going to www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.