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Published - Pioneer Press: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Theater review

CTC's `Lyle the Crocodile'
bites audience a little too hard

Theater Critic

The set for the Children's Theatre Company's production of ``Lyle the Crocodile'' is a rendering of the flat, washed-out, almost childlike drawings from the Bernard Waber books that inspired the play.

But while the setting sits back in two-dimensional quietude, the production itself is so three-dimensional that it threatens to bust off the stage and sit in your lap.

The titular New York crocodile and his friends move and speak the way the Keystone Kops would have had they not been trapped in a silent movie.

It's an antic romp, played gleefully and with all the nuance and subtlety of a 50-below wind chill. But even at just 60 minutes long, the production feels padded and sometimes, like Lyle's tail, it drags.

Kevin Kling, the poster boy for Minnesota eccentricity, adapted the script, and his winsomely wacky voice strains to be heard. But it never quite comes through. Mainly, it seems to be a problem of believability.

OK, OK . . . so no one is ever going to discover a crocodile noshing on Turkish caviar in their bathroom. Still, there needs to be a morsel of possibility in what we're seeing on the stage to feed our imaginations. Here, the characters are so puffed up, so much larger than life that all the imagining is done for us.

And so the merriment sometimes seems forced, the dance routines an attempt to keep the adrenaline flowing. After all that vamping, the show rushes to its conclusion in the last five minutes or so. It ends with a limp thump, which director/choreographer Matthew Howe tries to mitigate by throwing in one last splashy dance number.

He'd have been better served to dial back his performers a notch: Broad comedy tends to get broader the longer it's played, and though ``Lyle'' opened this weekend at CTC, the show was out on a seven-state, 94-performance tour in the last few months.

Oddly, the most likely character is the least probable of all: our reptilian hero. Michael Lee, in bowtie, a long green tail coat (and I do mean tail coat) and hair dyed green and slicked up to look pointy, never speaks a word as Lyle. Given his abundant charm, he doesn't have to.

Like Snoopy in scales, Lee's happy-go-lucky Lyle is the most human and most humane of the bunch.

On the other end of the spectrum is Eric Levos as Hector P. Valenti, Lyle's performing partner and, in this adaptation, the story's narrator. There's something vaguely creepy about this guy. The actor's not helped by a makeup job that gives him a pale pallor and a greasy little mustache. But Levos' glassy-eyed overexuberance doesn't help.

In between, most of the rest of the cast is fighting hard to play caricature without letting caricature play them. Some, such as David Roberts's mean old Mr. Grumps, succeed admirably -- he's so nasty that you believe that thunder claps and lightning flashes when he enters a room, and you can almost see the cartoon wisps of steam coming out of his ears.

Others, like Kevin Schniepp's Mr. Primm, succumb and are more a collection of tics than an actual character.

CTC's youngest audience members aren't likely to notice any of this. But if you're old enough not to be distracted by motion, you might find that ``Lyle the Crocodile'' bites down just a little too hard.

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