Slow to Move 

Nashville Children's Theatre staging of Judith Viorst story gets sorely hampered by a poor script

Nashville Children's Theatre staging of Judith Viorst story gets sorely hampered by a poor script

Alexander, Who's Not Not Not Not Not Not Going to Move

Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre

Through Dec. 18 at NCT's Hill Theatre

Nashville Children's Theatre was recently dubbed the fourth best children's theater in America by Time magazine. It's a long overdue honor, testament to discreet management, imaginative artistic direction, the leadership of producing director Scot Copeland, and the support of Nashville theatergoers. The company's latest effort shows flashes of high professionalism, but the material is a mixed bag of humor and music that doesn't always connect, though the ultimate lesson is a salient one.

The play is based on journalist and children's author Judith Viorst's Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move. Viorst is probably best known for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, her popular storybook about a put-upon young lad who can't seem to get anything right. This time, Alexander has to grapple with a more difficult problem: his dad has a new job, and the family must prepare to uproot themselves and move a thousand miles away to a new home. Everyone's willing except Alexander, whose fear and anger are masked by petulance, orneriness and the vague hope that somehow maybe he can stay in the old neighborhood—or that his dedicated stubbornness might at least retard the moving process.

It's an engaging setup, and when Matt Mellon hits the boards—short, pugnacious, red-haired and looking agreeably similar to illustrator Ray Cruz's conceptualization of the book's hero—we get a good sense that NCT has maintained the essence of Viorst's story. Jazzy piano music, influenced by Chick Corea and John Costa (of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood fame), kicks off the opening musical number, but Mellon's singing doesn't match the energy of the prerecorded tracks, arranged by musical director Paul Carrol Binkley. It's not that he can't sing at all, but he doesn't sound as if he's in his strongest range. We strain to hear the lyrics, and the battle between voice and music is won by the latter.

Composer Shelly Markham's score is a hodgepodge of styles (comic number, rock song, music-hall soft shoe, etc.), and it's serviceable enough. More problematic is the script adaptation, executed by author Viorst. Alexander's plight is framed well, and the denouement, wherein his parents help him to accept the inevitable, is warmly communicated. In between, we get scene after scene of Alexander's schemes to stay put. He hatches plans to move in with various neighbors and even hides himself in a pickle barrel, all to no avail. These episodes are dotted with humor, but there's a sameness to the goings-on, and Viorst's writing is overwrought to the point of being mediocre. One odd sequence, in which Alexander gets dog poo on his shoes, left the audience of schoolchildren wondering if it was OK to laugh, proving that even 10-year-olds can perceive when taste might be in question.

The big number, which features a family of red-haired tomboys, for sure reeks of comedy but shortchanges on the impact. It's hard to know here where director Scot Copeland leaves off and choreographer Holly Shepherd takes over. Either way, the performances look too loose, almost improvised. The same problem plagues all the musical scenes: they're sometimes spirited and mildly amusing, but it's as though they don't quite connect with Viorst's text. The structuring of the songs, while not necessarily random, doesn't always seem in service of the story's primary thrust. The tunes fill a void, but sometimes that's all they seem to be doing.

The production is at its best when the actors infuse their characters with desperately needed animation, something that happens whenever Pete Vann is onstage. Like most everyone else in the cast of seven, he plays various roles, but his turn as Swoozie the Dog is especially rollicking. On all fours, and in full dog get-up, he playfully attacks Alexander and, piece by piece, tears away the boy's clothing. It's a deft and truly funny moment, and Vann never relents on the friskiness, following that up with a clever soft-shoe number. Rona Carter and Chip Arnold, as Alexander's parents, provide caring maturity, and Ross Brooks and Patrick Waller play the hero's bossy older brothers with appropriate superior glee. Evelyn Blythe fills out the ensemble playing five ancillary roles (neighbor girls, babysitter, etc.). Her contributions are less critical to the movement of the tale, but in every case she projects the kind of natural warmth and mirth that's missing, or at least hard to find, in Viorst's craftsmanship.

Even if the play itself threatens to veer into irrelevance, NCT maintains its typically first-rate production values, especially in the fine lighting design by Scott Leathers, who uses bold colors and patterns in his backdrops. René D. Copeland's set pieces are cute and clever and functional. Patricia Taber's costumes, in particular the dog outfit, offer more evidence of the company's pro-level proficiency.

Whatever its shortcomings, Alexander hits on a serious human concern: the emotional impact on children when they have to move away from familiar surroundings. Youngsters ages 8 and up, even those well into their teens, will no doubt be drawn into Alexander's world. There are a few laughs all along his heartfelt journey, and occasionally the music charms. If only Viorst's script were tighter, not to mention funnier. The best efforts of the creative team eventually convey the therapeutic message, but there's no organic pulse here, nor is there the kind of knowing whimsy usually found in the best children's theater. And in the end, the material is everything: if the writing lags, the play drags.

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