‘The Day John Henry Came to School’ and ‘George and Martha: Tons of Fun’
By Celia Wren
April 24, 2011
Using only a hammer and his own prodigious strength, legend holds, the steel driver John Henry tunneled through a mountain faster than a steam-powered drill. Turns out that feat was small potatoes compared to the task of making his great-great-great-grandson, Johnny, care about anything but computer games.
Or so holds “The Day John Henry Came to School,” Eric Pfeffinger’s adventurous, if slightly under-polished, new children’s comedy, which argues for the superiority of the real world over the virtual realm, and for the preeminence of human effort over that bells-and-whistles technology stuff. Recommended for ages 7 and up, the play is making its world premiere at Imagination St age, which appears to have missed a major marketing opportunity by not arranging for cross-promotions with Amtrak and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.
Janet Stanford directs “John Henry,” which kicks off with the image of smartphone and handheld-computer lights flickering over human faces on a darkened stage. This tableau captures the cyber-obsessions of young Johnny Henry (Nickolas Vaughan, acting suitably introverted), who is thrilled to bits — make that bytes — when he learns that his school is replacing his teacher Miss Gellert (Sandra L. Murphy) with a mainframe. Automated instruction will be more efficient, explains education bigwig Mr. Huntington (a drolly dictatorial Michael John Casey), who’s not a fan of traditional elementary-school endeavors. “The time wasted with finger-painting alone!” he gripes. “All that cleanup!”
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Johnny’s classroom gets a surprise visit from his ancestor John Henry (Dereks Thomas, projecting brawniness and an apt amount of bewilderment). The folk hero galvanizes the kids with his thrilling railroad-labor saga, with the result that Mr. Huntington’s “Brave New World”-style curriculum upgrade blows a circuit. (John Henry’s tale is tragic as well as inspiring, of course: The steel driver famously died after racing the steam drill — a fact that gets matter-of-fact mention here.)
The first half of Pfeffinger’s script feels a little slack and uninspired, taking a relatively long time to establish Johnny’s computer addiction, not to mention the “American Idol”-style singing aspirations of Johnny’s classmate Jeanie (a chirpy Kate Guesman, in pink glitter sneakers). But the wit picks up once Mr. Huntington has started to demonstrate his computerized teaching scheme, which includes click-and-drag art lessons with digitized bits of Picasso paintings. (Videographer Erik Trester supplies the hilarious graphics, displayed on an onstage screen, framed by scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon’s WPA-style murals).
Imagination Stage is presenting “John Henry” in repertory with another world premiere that, implicitly, celebrates human energy and bonds: the adorable new musical “George & Martha: Tons of Fun,” recommended for ages 3 and up. Composer, lyricist and book writer Joan Cushing (“Miss Nelson Is Missing!,” “Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood,” etc.) has drawn on James Marshall’s books about companionable hippos to create a show that brims with sprightliness, gentle humor and touching reflections on friendship.
Director Kathryn Chase Bryer brings buoyant rhythms to the production, which stars the pitch-perfect duo of Casey and Murphy as George and Martha, best buddies whose relationship occasionally hits a rough patch over a misunderstanding — like Martha’s penchant for serving George pea soup, which he secretly can’t stand.
Choreographer Scott Rink adds ebullience with his vaudeville-style movement for supporting characters Pig, Dog and Croc (Guesman, Thomas and Vaughan), and designer Debra Kim Sivigny cleverly balances human and critter characteristics in the costumes. (George and Martha wear human attire with ears, and Pig looks cherubic in a bubble-gum-pink dress).
And, like the best children’s theater, “George & Martha” tosses in allusions that adult ticketholders will relish. At home alone, Martha reads “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” while George likes to paint — a hobby he celebrates in a song that references van Gogh.
Maybe, having shed his computer-game habit, young Johnny Henry will turn to pastimes that are equally circuit-board-free.