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Theater review: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

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Children's Theatre has put some stultifying fare on its main stage in the past couple of seasons, so it's gratifying to report that the latest musical to be based on a pamphlet-sized anklebiter text, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, is actually top-grade Tarradiddle. Each of the mighty Tarradiddle Players gets a chance to shine at the Wachovia Playhouse, and the book, music, and lyrics by Eric Lane Barnes show a composer poised to transcend kiddie one-acts.

Don't remember the intricacies of Virginia Lee Burton's original 1939 saga? Neither did I. Only the book cover, placed prominently centerstage by scenic designer Tim Parati, rang a bell. Fifty-eight minutes later, my suspicion was that all Barnes' alterations and additions were for the better.

Despite the onset of two newer generations of technology, Mike Mulligan has an unshakeable confidence in his aging steam shovel's ability to do the job more quickly -- and cheaply -- than her competitors, the Electric Shovel and the Nuclear Shovel. Mike is a man of faith, not science, convinced that his equipment has a decisive edge because he has given her a name, Mary Anne, painted right on her neck.

Salvador Garcia plays this loopy visionary with a cheerful insouciance that only droops into worry as the drama climaxes and Mary Anne seems headed for mean Henry B. Swap's junkyard. So we're fortunate that Garcia can throw off Mike's sunniness during the earlier stages of the story and delight us with the robotic arrogance of Nukee, the Nuclear Shovel.

Like other great kiddie lit underdogs, such as the Velveteen Rabbit and the Little Engine That Could, Mary Anne has a poignant awareness of her own limitations. Without overstating the pathos, Leslie Ann Giles is a plucky Mary Ann, fiercely loyal to Mike but with a weary hankering to retire from shoveling and settle down. Kids seemed to take her "Dream of a Steam Shovel" ballad seriously, quite a feat when Giles, like her shovel colleagues, is wielding a rangy puppet (created by Peter Smeal) to simulate a machine. Mike's motivating song, on the other hand, "Mary Anne Can," has a catchy beat -- perfect for the occasion.

Darlene Black is Electric Shovel, the chummier of Mary Anne's competitors, and Virginia, the most helpful of the onlookers as our heroine falters during her time trial. As the mean, mean Swap, Stephen Seay rounds out the cast with a little more abrasiveness and a little less comic exasperation than you might expect. But Barnes doesn't merely intend for Swap to be confounded by Mary Anne's amazing efficiency, he means for him to be rehabilitated and domesticated.

Grab a kid and go see this.

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