Cleverness Paves the Way At 'Tollbooth'

From left, Phil Olejack, Cyana Cook, Kurt Boehm, James Gardiner and Lauren Williams inhabit the dreamlike world of the classic children's book
From left, Phil Olejack, Cyana Cook, Kurt Boehm, James Gardiner and Lauren Williams inhabit the dreamlike world of the classic children's book "The Phantom Tollbooth." (By Carol Pratt -- Kennedy Center)
By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible," two eccentric monarchs remark in the classic children's book "The Phantom Tollbooth." The new stage version of the tale, premiering at the Kennedy Center Family Theater, bears out this royal wisdom.

One might have feared it impossible to turn Norton Juster's whimsical, pun-slinging fantasy into a satisfying song-and-dance production. But a creative team that includes Juster and celebrated lyricist Sheldon Harnick ("Fiddler on the Roof" et al.) evidently turned a blind eye to the odds, crafting a musical that's nearly as witty and buoyant as the 1961 book. Tim McDonald directs the 70-minute show, which boasts a richly textured score by the late Arnold Black.

As millions of readers remember, "The Phantom Tollbooth" chronicles the adventures of Milo, a chronically bored lad who wanders into a weirdly edifying fairy-tale world -- a realm where mathematics and grammar lessons are distorted through funhouse mirrors, a la "Alice in Wonderland." Accompanied by a watchdog named Tock, Milo treks through the kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis -- ruled, respectively, by the word-loving King Azaz and the numbers-crazed Mathemagician (who serves his visitors a stew that makes them hungrier the more they eat). After braving the demon-inhabited Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and Tock rescue the captive Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the isolated Castle in the Air.

To fit this novelistic escapade into the frame of a one-act musical, adapters Juster and Harnick had to pare away numerous subplots, as well as several of the book's most memorable figures, such as the Humbug and the Awful Dynne. But more than enough oddball characters remain, and they're delightfully interpreted by the production's seven-person cast.

The actors, too, have ample room to operate on James Kronzer's spare set: a jigsaw-puzzle map serving as backdrop for dreamlike furnishings, such as the tollbooth, which is equipped with flashing lights that recall a Las Vegas slot machine.

Kurt Boehm's gawky Milo plays straight man to Lauren Williams's fierce but puppyish Tock, while the other cast members flit in and out of hilarious cameos. Just to name a few such turns: James Gardiner is goofily despotic as the Mathemagician, a Groucho Marx look-alike in black-and-white scholar's garb. (Rosemary Pardee designed the zany costumes; Dreama J. Greaves is properties artisan.) Phil Olejack displays pitch-perfect timing as King Azaz's synonym-addicted adviser: "Greetings! Salutations! Good afternoon! Hi there!" he effuses in different voices. Katie Babb is aptly saccharine as the Demon of Insincerity; and LC Harden Jr. makes a solid King Azaz.

The performers' energies sync up nicely in the musical numbers, which feature exuberant choreography by Karma Camp. One particularly enjoyable ensemble sequence is the Dictionopolis market scene, in which vendors peddle nouns, verbs and other grammatical units. The words are mostly piled high in wheelbarrows, but two shady merchants (Olejack and Babb) hawk pronouns out of a briefcase as if they were pirated Rolexes. The Adjective Seller (Gardiner) does a John Travolta-like disco shtick; a female Verb Seller (Cyana Cook) essays a bit of belly-dancing, appearing in her purple gauze costume like an outtake from "The Nutcracker." And Harnick's lyrics brim with deadpan drollery.

No trace of jingly-ness mars Black's sophisticated score: The production was once intended to be a children's opera, and the orchestral accompaniment and underscoring retain a spiky, occasionally dissonant, classical sound, which frequently supplies an extra dimension of mysteriousness. At other times, waggish bits of unusual percussion echo the quirkiness of Milo's newfound world. (The musical theater version of the project was commissioned by the Kennedy Center.)

Black's contributions help boost "The Phantom Tollbooth" a notch or two above most children's musicals. Or, as King Azaz's synonym-addicted adviser might term the production: a coup, a feat, a canny exploit and one neat trick.

The Phantom Tollbooth, music by Arnold Black, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; based on the book by Norton Juster, adapted for the stage by Juster and Harnick. Directed by Timothy A. McDonald; music direction, Derek Bowley; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Rumery. About 70 minutes. Through Dec. 16 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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