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Bottled dreams 

Entertainment for ankle-biters

As connoisseurs of the macabre have long known, Roald Dahl is one children's book writer who doesn't feel compelled to play nice. In a Children's Theatre of Charlotte season that has already given the ImaginOn crying room a workout with the witchery of The Wizard of Oz and the grim Victorian realities of The Christmas Doll, Dahl's The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) continues our leisurely stroll down Nightmare Alley.

Neither Oz nor the underbelly of London is anything like simple Kansas, but in taking us to a land of child-eating giants, CTC may be embarking on its most intrepid journey yet -- and potentially its most terrifying. Spotted by a wakeful orphan named Sophie, BFG kidnaps the child and, with strides "long as a tennis court," whisks her across mountains and seas to his uncharted homeland.

BFG's compatriots not only cannibalize European young, they are so large that Sophie's vegetarian captor is dwarfed by their size. Yes, the imaginative scale of all this is quite daunting for the 7th Street fantasy palace and David Wood, who adapted Dahl's book for the stage.

At the heart of the creative solution are Drew Allison's colossal puppets evoking Childchewer, Meatdripper, Bloodbottler, Fleshlumpeater and Bonecruncher, a hulking quintet of rampaging predators barely contained beneath the McColl Family Theatre proscenium. Conversely, there's a miniaturized Sophie, wielded by actress Paula Schmitt in her Children's Theatre debut.

Seeing the puppeteers -- wielding the miniscule Sophie and inside the immense, foam-headed giants -- helps turn the burners way down on the flaming fright factor to warm glow. Yes, for most of the production, we settle into the POV of the BFG, eccentrically clad in a clownish costume perfectly judged by designer Sandra Gray. In this bright, pastel Bozo rig, Duke Ernsberger can veer from zaniness to childishness without totally surrendering BFG's nightmare chromosomes.

We don't get a King Kong effect when BFG snatches Sophie from the London orphanage. No, that's held in reserve until late into the show when Sophie and the BFG enlist the Queen of England -- and ultimately, the RAF -- in ridding Europe of its horrific scourge. Now the puppetized head of the BFG fills the entire window as the monarch gazes upon this wonder from her Buckingham Palace boudoir.

A delicious dramatic moment that adults may savor even more than the anklebiters. For until Her Highness sees the BFG face-to-face, no other human has beheld this marvel. A purveyor of dreams, scrupulously collected and bottled in his laboratory, BFG himself might be the dream of a lonely, sad orphan. This decisive moment, when the human POV clicks in, is not only electrified by this sudden shift in scale, it's lavishly extended. When the BFG accepts his invitation to a royal breakfast, he's seated at a cocktail table improvised from two grandfather clocks, each about twice as tall as any you'll find on the planet, and a pingpong table. Life-sized at last, and worth the wait.

The supporting cast is every bit as fine as Ernsberger and Schmitt, with Barbi VanSchaick a particular treat as the starchy Queen. We waft charmingly over the seas, thanks to the teamwork of scenic designer Jim Gloster and lighting wiz Eric Winkenwerder. At the Saturday afternoon show, kids' attention remained riveted to the stage for the entire 76 minutes.

Sometimes, my own struggles were more difficult, particularly when Wood persisted in introducing us to Gobblefunk, the fractured vocabulary Dahl invented for his giants. Redeeming this silly rot was the poetic imagery of the BFG, the bottled dreams that gleam on his shelves and the long heraldic horn he delivers them with. And there's an element of pathos. Forswearing the protein of long piglets, BFG must content himself with a diet of repellent snozzcumbers.

So as child protagonists often do, Sophie comes to the rescue and rouses her far bigger companion from his torpor. In a flash, he's mixing up a dream cocktail for the Queen! Glumptious.

If you've never traveled to that imaginary Brainerd, Minnesota, where pterodactyl tuxedoes, wanted posters of aphids, and pinecone sandwiches are all possible, you had a chance to see it live at ImaginOn -- and other public library locations -- a couple of weekends ago. Half concert and half dazzling animated cartoon video, The Gustafer Yellowgold Show was a 100 percent joy, as pure as sunlight.

As so many of the toddlers at ImaginOn's Wachovia Playhouse seemed to know already, Gustafer hails from the sun, preferring to hang out with pet dragon Asparagus, eel roommate Slim (short for Slimothy), and mustard slugs Paul, Kevin, and Evan. Hardly a breath of evil inhabits this preschool world, invented by singer/songwriter/illustrator Morgan Taylor. No Roald Dahl terrors for sure -- or even a Saturday morning cartoon meanie.

Yet the lyrics of "Your Eel," "I Jump on Cake," aren't dumbed-down in their simplicity. I'm reminded of the mischievous Michael Franks when I hear Taylor rocking softly with his quartet -- and the flamboyance of Dr. Seuss's imagery has been mellowed out with late Matisse in the animation. Leftover copies of the newest Yellowgold CD/DVD, Have You Never Been Yellow, may still be available at ImaginOn. We'll soon learn whether New York goes for the Yellowgold as Gustafer Yellowgold's Mellow Sensation makes its off-Broadway debut on March 15.

The Charlotte warm-up certainly looked promising.

Pineville Dinner Theatre is back for the new year with a new show, Beginner's Luck. I can also report that they've revived some appealing old customs down at Park Road, including the Our Gang movies projected during dinner and the intro patter by the inimitable Spanky Sprowles.

Some new wrinkles have been added that PDT fans should be alerted to. Friday nights and Saturday late nights have been set aside for stand-up comedians, leaving Thursdays and Saturdays for theater productions. With stage and stand-up splitting the Saturday night bill, Beginner's Luck actually revs up at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than the Thursday show.

With Craig Spradley starring as wayward husband Paul Burnett, and Barbara Pratt as Sally Walker, the ex-missus who impetuously divorced him, this is a sweeter flavor of comedy than the new Pineville usually serves up. You might be amazed to discover that Hank West, as Barbara's new beau, is certifiably civilized. But there's a come-hither wantonness to Mimi Presley-Harkness as Monica, the secretary Paul almost cheats with, and Jerry Colbert -- binoculars hanging down to his overalls -- is one window washer who has the balls to advertise his peeping-tom credentials.

Chef Cliff Ottinger has made sure that the menu isn't as stale and recycled as the stage scenery. The petite tenderloin with foie butter is the prime winner among the newcomers.

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