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REVIEW: Designing Laughter in Corduroy (Children’s Theatre Company)

Ileri Okikiolu as Lisa in the Children’s Theatre Company production of Corduroy. Photo by Dan Norman.

I grew up with Don Freeman’s classic children’s picture book Corduroy. It’s a story so simple, endearing, and timeless that it seems odd to learn that the book dates back to 1968 – fifty years’ old, to be sure, but having lost nothing in the interval. Now that book has been transformed into a two-act play at the Children’s Theatre Company, in a new adaptation by Barry Kornhauser.

This is not a review of the actors’ performances in Corduroy; at the reviewed performance, Dwight Leslie stepped in from The Wiz to cover for Sigmund Reed as the Night Watchman. Rather, it is a review focused on the present production’s technical and design aspects.

Keegan Robinson and Meredith ‘Mimi’ Kol-Balfour as the Ensemble in Corduroy. Photo by Dan Norman.

One of the first things that you notice when seeing Corduroy is that great attention has been paid to making scene transitions into a piece of entertainment. Most transitions occur in full view of the audience, with choreographed movements and other physical comedy that puts grins on faces. Indeed, the stagehands hang out in plain sight, posing as various mannequins that come to life to implement the next change. The device works very well at sustaining the interest of the small children in the audience, and not badly at sustaining adults’ interest as well.

The scenic designs for Corduroy are by Torry Bend, who also designed CTC’s Animal Dance. The result is slavishly page-by-page in its recreation as the company’s earlier Cat in the Hat; a few crosshatches aside, the backgrounds are generally much simpler than those drawn by Freeman in the book. This focuses the viewer’s attention on whatever is moving onstage, which is not a bad thing. One of the show’s recurring gag involves an out-of-control vacuum cleaner that sweeps its way across the stage, terrorizing various characters – a practical effect ingenious in its execution.

Victor Zupanc’s soundtrack and sound design are unobtrusive but effective, evoking classic slapstick without becoming obnoxious. Craig Gottschalk’s lighting design artfully draws the eyes from place to place, carefully managing different reveals and smoothing transitions from stuffed bear to actor-playing-stuffed-bear. The ultimate result is a smooth and entertaining expansion of the short picture book into a two-act stage play.

Corduroy plays through May 20 at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine