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Theater reviews: The Story of the Little Gentleman, Nutcracker and more

Children Theatre production enthralls the young ones

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Comparing kiddie theatricals with their adult counterparts, you'll often find very few visual differences. Plugging in the sound and cuing up the verbiage usually introduces a wide world of obstacles for either the young or the old. So it's interesting to watch how the world premiere Children's Theatre production of The Story of the Little Gentleman, now at ImaginOn through Dec. 28, is toppling those barriers.

Parts of the spare set design by Anita Easterling might serve admirably in a presentation of Waiting for Godot, and Magda Guichard's costume scheme for the title character ­­— including a shambling trenchcoat and shabby shoes — is certainly consonant with the barren wintry landscape. But there are few difficulties for even the youngest theatergoers at Wells Fargo Playhouse once the characters from Barbro Lindgren's book arrive in this stage adaptation by Lars-Erik Brossner and Thomas von Brîmssen.

That's because the five of them have so little to say. Three of the cast are musicians: Tim Parsons on violin, Tanja Bechtler on cello and Nicky Jasper — who wrote the original music for this production — on assorted winds and percussion. Parsons is the heavy in the Little Gentleman's little town, frankly disdainful toward his pleas for friendship, while Bechtler is colder and quieter in her rejection. Jasper seems somewhat sympathetic toward the poor lonely soul, yet unwilling to break ranks with her fellow musicians.

So there isn't much conversation or disputation between the Little Gentleman and the townsfolk, which is quite OK when you have Hank West as your leading man. West's stint in Balloonacy last October at ImaginOn was all the apprenticeship he needed to master the pantomime skills he uses here to keep the anklebiters enthralled when they aren't convulsed in laughter.

Aside from his entreaties to the stony musicians, it's a far from silent outing for West. He galumphs around the stage with a distinct lack of grace, blows his nose with stentorian gusto, and when he retires to his revolving home, there's additional noise when he brushes his teeth at bedtime, spits out the mimed paste, robustly sucks his thumb as he hits the pillow, and finally nods off with a volley of snoring.

A prevailing quietude in the show's early episodes makes these outbreaks more welcome and funny. The logo on the front cover of the playbill also leads me to assume that the original Little Gentleman was actually a child, so West is part of a conspiracy that yields an additional bounty of comedy dividends. For surely the bursts of laughter that shake the hall come from the recognition that a fully grown man is acting like a child.

Even the articulate portion of West's work is lifted by this incongruity as the Little Gentleman sits at his little desk and pens his lonelyhearts advertisement, saying every word of it out loud. Then he slaps a copy on each of the townspeople's music stands, correcting all their mistakes when they read it aloud before he tacks another copy on a tree.

We only get a minimum of thawing at this point as Jasper briefly breaks character to give us a snip of narrative. The real breakout happens when our hero's destined companion, a flop-eared pooch, finally makes her entrance. Amy Arpan doesn't have much to say as the wee gent's doggie, but she has even more noise in her repertoire, and her sheer energy makes us see how relatively tame her master has been as she brings him to life.

Of course, there's barking and howling. But with the license granted to her by director Mark Sutton, there's also plenty of slurpy licking, eager panting and messy masticating. The ball Arpan is having in her clownish costume is occasionally on loan from Lucille Ball, but a couple of scenes hearken back to the mirror shticks of vaudeville and the silent film work of Ball's inspiration, Charlie Chaplin. Doggie arrives at the Little Gentleman's doorway in Little Tramp mode, carrying her bindle, her staff and a cardboard box to sleep in.

Cementing this great new friendship then involves hijinks with a blanket, a teapot and some meatballs. Arpan even shows off some juggling skills with those meatballs as that old-timey scene wraps up.

The seasons pass as the friendship grows, and there's a crisis before we reach the end. Jasper circles from her seat on the bandstand to the stairs in front of the Little Gent's house, becomes a little girl, and Doggie takes a shine to her. This was a catastrophe for our hero, and West's weeping, wailing emotional tailspin was disturbing to more than one pre-schooler at last Saturday's morning premiere.

Rest assured, Christmas and reconciliation between man and beast come right on schedule, precisely synchronized before a full 54 minutes elapse. Without much foreshadowing or holiday context, the ending didn't exactly overwhelm me, and it may mystify the small fry. The opening, where the Little Gentleman hardly strays more than 20 feet beyond his front door in search of companionship, won't have you weeping for the poor soul's desperation, either. So yes, the edges of the Brossner/Brîmssen script could still stand some sharpening, but inside at its gooey, slurpy, loving core, The Story of the Little Gentleman is a family delight that Children's Theatre of Charlotte can be proud of.

Yuletide cheer was served up nearly as swiftly by Appalachian Creative Theatre's artistic director, Justin Attkisson, in a production of The Santaland Diaries that I clocked at 54:35 at UpStage in NoDa last Saturday night. If you've always imagined Crumpet as a snarky, subversive wimp who conforms perfectly to the weaselly contours of Sedaris' distinctive radio voice, Attkisson's take on the one-man show was something of an eye-opener: a robust, garrulous, dissolute style of storytelling. It was as if John Goodman or Kevin James had an inkling to show us what a Macy's Christmas elf was really all about.

The antithesis of Sedaris cattiness, Attkisson's reading played rather nicely as he strolled up and down a snowy runway, bordered by candy-cane posts topped with glowing translucent globes, that led majestically from the UpStage bar to Santa's throne at the opposite wall. After all, Crumpet is supposed to be ill-suited to the elf rig he finds himself in because he responds to a want ad and a roommate's dare. Now the things that Crumpet tells us he didn't say in response to customer rudeness or boorishness seemed to stem from restraint rather than cowardice.

Either way, the unemployed actor's ordeal — his subjugation to harried shoppers, clueless supervisors and jaded Santas — remained hilarious, and Attkisson's novel take made the familiar chronicles nearly as fresh for me as they were for the first-timers in the crowd.

After nine straight years of Nutcracker opening nights with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and his Charlotte Ballet companies, nobody would have grumbled if I had taken a sabbatical this year. Instead, I attended a weekend matinee with a nearly sellout crowd at Belk Theater. The place was teeming with aspiring Claras, Snow Queens and Sugar Plum Fairies. One of the horde of pint-sized ballerinas, standing in line and waiting patiently for her picture to be taken by a pro in Sugar Plum's prosperous studio, seemed to have taken a fancy to Mother Ginger!

Or at least her mother did. The kiddie buzz in the hall and the hectic crush at intermission helped to rejuvenate the whole nutty Nutcracker experience for me. Maybe a matinee could work similar wonders for you and your family next weekend. Gluttons like me can consider lunch between The Little Gentleman and the Nutcracker matinee this coming Saturday.

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