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Friday, April 8, 2011

Theater review: Lyle the Crocodile

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 11:54 AM

In the real world, discovery of a crocodile in our bathtub would likely send us scurrying in full panic mode toward the nearest window or front door. But in the alternate universe of Lyle the Crocodile, the surprise reptile has the modesty to be toweling off when he is first descried. He’s outfitted with an explanatory note from his previous owner, a sunny attitude, and a taste for Turkish caviar. Best of all, he’s drawn to the companionable scale and two-dimensionality of children’s books by his creator, Bernhard Waber.

He’s appreciably bigger in the current Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production at ImaginOn but quite possibly even more palatable in three dimensions. Bob Croghan’s set designs are as flat as anything on the library side of the building, and Courtney Burt Scott’s costume designs liberally spread the color around so that Lyle isn’t as outré as you might expect. Lyle’s new custodians, Mr. and Mrs. Primm, are garishly coordinated in red-and-white outfits, and his previous keeper, the flamboyant Hector P. Valenti, appears in a purple suit with a high hat that might credibly be worn by a cowboy or a bishop. The one child in the story, Joshua Primm, is Scott’s only concession to normality.

And if you didn’t know, Lyle resides in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, a place that boasts at least a million characters as snappish as Lyle. Kevin Kling’s adaptation of the first two Lyle books deftly points up the dubious lovability of New Yorkers. So why shouldn’t the Primms be charmed by Lyle? Some might legitimately admire him as that rare New Yorker adept at keeping his big mouth shut!

The same cannot be said of the two meanies of our tale, delegated by director Alan Poindexter to two of his most ancient accomplices. Barbi Van Schaick is Mrs. Nancy Nitpicker, the neighborhood greeter with snooping and gossip topping her agenda. With a simple appeal to her vanity, Nitpicker is swiftly charmed, affirming Lyle’s addictive crack-o-dile qualities. But Mark Sutton as that crotchety department store plutocrat, Mr. Donald Grump, is not so easily won over. In fact, Grump succeeds in confining Lyle to a cage in the Central Park Zoo, a melodramatic crisis of truly pre-school proportions.

Jonathan Elliott Coarsey towers over most of his cast-mates as Lyle but not clumsily, peppering his panto with a few cartwheels. As the shape-shifting Valenti, moonlighting as our narrator, James Dracy is as exotically companionable as his talented reptile. At the center of it all as Joshua, Isaac Josephthal is no less satisfying than he was last year as Hawkins in Treasure Island.

Overall, I think you’ll like the elder Primms. Nicholas Kern isn’t as zesty as I would have liked in his Children’s Theatre debut, but Maret Decker Seitz more than takes up the slack as Mrs. Primm. She is perfectly outsized in all she does, whether it’s operatically reacting to her new crocodile acquaintance, resourcefully bamboozling Mrs. Nitpicker, or rapturously swooning whenever her badly dressed hubby calls her name.

Together – with choreography by Ron Chisholm – Kern and Seitz tango stylishly enough as a prelude to their offstage intimacies. There are also flamenco moments for the Primms in Christopher Baine’s eclectic soundtrack, along with a fairy wink from The Nutcracker. Mostly, Lyle’s New York is a jazzy place, with snips of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Mingus dominating the soundscape. But the cherries on top of this hilarious confection are Peter Smeal’s props, his rolling puppy on a leash even funnier than his cardboard crowds.

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