Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
Presented by Nashville Children’s Theatre
Through May 16 at NCT’s Hill Theatre
The Kevin Henkes success story is a good one. Born in Wisconsin in 1960, Henkes scored a book deal with noted children’s publisher Greenwillow at the tender age of 19, and his first book was published by the time he was 21. Since then, he has written straight fiction, but he’s also a marvelously gifted illustrator. Blending his art skills with a wry sense of humor and playful observations about family life, Henkes has published an ongoing series of delightful picture books that revolve around personified mice. Chester’s Way, Julius, Baby of the World and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse are three of his best, featuring recurring major characters and loosely interconnected story lines. As read-alouds to children, the books are superlative, yet the author’s wit and subtle sophistication offer immediate appeal to adults as well.
All of which makes the idea of adapting Henkes’ books to the stage natural and smart. Kevin Kling has done a superb job of just that, and Nashville Children’s Theatre pulls out all the stops in its new production of Kling’s deft amalgamation of the three aforementioned books.
The main characters are Lilly, Chester and Wilson, three mice whose friendly interaction holds sway along the lines of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh gang. But Lilly, with her red cowboy boots and jaunty crown, is a real pistol: smart, sassy, fearless and loyal to all (her upfront jealousy for baby brother Julius notwithstanding). Lilly and her pals play, go to school, fend off the “big kids” and enjoy the classroom ambience created by their “artistic” teacher Mr. Slinger.
If ever a piece of children’s theater was tailor-made for good actors, this is it. The text is never cloying and always hip, and one gets the feeling that director Scot Copeland has made sure that his gifted cast has taken Henkes’ expressive artwork to heart in their characterizations.
The production offers the likable Misty Lewis her finest moment in a growing list of excellent appearances at NCT. She is the quintessential Lilly and commands attention in all that she does. Lovable, funny, poignant, heroic, Lewis is a ball of energy onstage, and her efforts go a long way toward making this heartwarming piece a rousing success. Lewis also choreographed the show’s humorous dance sequences.
Only slightly outdone by her tour de force are confreres Henry Haggard and Bobby Wyckoff, who as Wilson and Chester are simply a riot, especially when they play each other in a deftly pantomimed game of tennis. Evelyn Blythe and Jeff D. Boyet are all sincerity and wholesomeness as Lilly’s loving parents. jeff obafemi carr turns in yet another fine NCT performance, this time as the encouraging, oh so wise Mr. Slinger, who reassures Lilly with the shibboleth, “Today was difficult. Tomorrow will be better.” Stella Reed and Brooke Bryant fill out the cast nicely playing multiple ancillary roles.
There’s a lot of impressive technical stuff going on in this production too. Scott Boyd’s scenic and lighting designs are a joy to witness, as set pieces fly in and out with appropriate vigor, including a hilarious sequence involving a rocket that hurtles through the air from stage left to right. Patricia Taber’s charming costumes burst with color and creativity. Admirably, Pete Carden’s puppet designs very nicely capture the “mousy” feel of the Henkes illustrations. There’s also a jazzy incidental music score by Paul Carrol Binkley, which veers in spirit from Thelonious Monk’s dotty piano pieces to Vince Guaraldi’s themes for the televised Peanuts specials.
At 85 minutes, Lilly is much longer than the average children’s theater production. Thanks to Copeland’s affectionate direction and the players’ unbridled enthusiasm, it never loses steam, even after a 10-minute intermission. This letter-perfect execution brings out the best of Henkes’ excellent source material, affirming him as the rare children’s author who can engage adults with smarts and sincerity while keeping his books firmly geared toward a young audience.
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