Harold and the Purple Crayon | Theater review

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Children's books are transformed into stage plays all of the time, and every playwright faces the same challenge: How do you convert something that maxes out at 30 pages and 300 words into something that fills 45 minutes of stage time? Often, it means layering on story elements or padding dialogue. For Sean Graney, who directs the Don Darryl Rivera–penned Harold and the Purple Crayon musical for Chicago Children's Theatre, it means going slightly bananas.


The lyrics and book expand on Crockett Johnson's 1955 classic featuring a toddler who draws himself into new adventures using a large purple crayon. But Graney expands the boundary of the stage, with this beautiful, energetic and imaginative interpretation. The simple set is comprised of three large white clouds, which provide canvasses for Harold's drawings. As Harold (Nate Lewellyn) doodles, the purple lines are projected onto the clouds behind him, and often the objects or creatures he imagines spring forth. When he sketches an apple on his pad, it's projected on a cloud behind him, and then a swift kick sends a three-dimensional purple apple sailing from behind the cloud and into the air. When he finds himself underwater, he writes "HELMET STORE,"  and the words are plastered across another cloud, calling forth a barnacly old sea captain hocking antique diving helmets.


Two "storytellers," played by Alex Goodrich and Bethany Thomas, accompany Harold in his travels, taking on the forms of aliens, aquatic life, a dragon or his parents, depending on what Harold draws. And the show is warmly aided by Goodrich's skilled physical comedy and Frankel's formidable pipes. The story, like Harold's imagination, is non-linear and unconstrained, and Graney evokes all of that by mixing in animation, some aerobic stage movement and Alison Siple's costumes, which read like Halloween get-ups built by a loving mom who is way into the holiday. The real star of the show is the puppetry and props created by Joana Iwanicka. During one sequence, Goodrich maneuvers a puffer fish constructed from a purple umbrella that is mesmerizing to watch. When Harold takes off on a rocket, Frankel extends a long pole into the crowd with a tiny, illuminated rocket attached. A five-year-old seated next to me exclaimed: "This is so awesome!"


Graney perfectly captures the kinetic and digressive imagination of a young kid, and spills it all out onto the stage in an unspooling spectacle. I honestly think I had as much fun as my three-year-old, which is stiff competition.


Harold and the Purple Crayon runs October 11–November 4 in the Chicago Children's Theatre's new home, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N Dearborn St.



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