Chicago Children’s Theatre’s The Houdini Box | Theater review

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Alex Weisman, left, with Derek Hasenstab as the Barker in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s production of The Houdini Box

Alex Weisman, left, with Derek Hasenstab as the Barker in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s production of The Houdini Box Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Serendipity is a funny mistress. No doubt about it, she’s currently smiling upon Chicago Children’s Theatre, whose latest, The Houdini Box, couldn’t be more timely. The world-premiere musical is an adaptation of a book by Brian Selznick—the very same Caldecott-winner whose work spawned the movie Hugo, vaulted last week into frontrunner status for the Oscars. We’d be surprised if a flurry of interest in Selznick’s work doesn’t help Houdini’s ticket sales; if nothing else, it certainly confirms CCT artistic director Jacqueline Russell’s good taste.


Here’s the potentially tricky part of this good timing: It also brings with it heightened expectations, and Houdini Box is a very different, much slighter tale than the one Scorsese brought to cinemas. Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret clocks in at more than 500 pages, but Houdini Box is a mere 64. Selznick had not yet developed his signature graphic-novel approach when he wrote Houdini, either. It was his first book, published more than 20 years ago, near the start of his career.


It’s a simple tale, really, which CCT expands into an hourlong, fun-loving musical with whiz-bang visuals and whimsical puppetry. Set at the turn of the century, our protagonist, a boy named Victor, frustrates his mother with his constant attempts at magic and escape tricks. It’s all due to his idolization of Harry Houdini, who he bumps into at Penn Station. The famous illusionist makes the young lad a secret promise, setting in motion both the greatest joy and the greatest disappointment of Victor’s life.


Helming the adaptation is Blair Thomas, who wore multiple hats (director, set designer and puppet designer) while filling the show with delightful details. Set pieces slide in and out, transforming the stage into Victor’s home, a depot and a graveyard. (Houdini’s face painted on a pair of doors and a poster of Houdini with moving arms are two especially sharp visuals.) The three-person cast packs plenty of talent too, especially Sara Sevigny as Victor’s mom, a truly chameleonic performer who seems perfectly at home in any era. Elizabeth Wislar’s period costumes are lovely—and especially helpful at aiding adult actor Alex Weisman’s transformation from kid to grown-up.


But the show still feels overlong. Thomas and Company clearly felt the need to stretch the material to the hour mark, yet Hannah Kohl’s script doesn’t invent enough extra story to keep things flowing. A full half-hour into the show, the titular box has yet to make an appearance, but we’ve heard and seen—again and again—just how single-minded Victor can be regarding his magic tricks. Happily, Weisman plays him with sincerity and complete commitment so Victor never seems like a brat.


While the music by Mark Messing, of Mucca Pazza and plenty of Redmoon collaborations, receives an enthusiastic performance from a two-man band (percussionist Ethan Deppe and Rob Cruz on keyboard and accordion), the songs themselves are at best a mixed bag. For example, “Finally Make the Magic Go Away” manages to be amusing and annoying all at once. That’s a shame, since music would be the best way to stretch the story while keeping us engaged.


Houdini’s thematically complex and mysterious ending might not feel like much of a conclusion to younger viewers—or even to adults in the audience who desire a more traditional narrative. That said, if you’re looking for a way to introduce your kid to the notion that not all stories end with a neat-and-tidy happily ever after, Houdini is who you’re looking for.


Bonus: At select Friday-night performances in February, audience members get a delightful coda, a short set of tricks from magnetic magician and show consultant Brett Schneider.




Chicago Children's Theatre The Houdini Box runs through March 4 at Mercury Theater (3745 N Southport Ave, 773-325-1700), then March 14–25 at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts (9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie; 847-673-6300).



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