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Published - Star-Tribune: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Theater review

A croc of comedy: 'Lyle' a zippy, funny show

Theater Critic

Roll over, Bob Fosse!

"Lyle, the Crocodile," which begins with finger-snapping, slump-shouldered dancers moving in that cool way that is one of late choreographer's artistic signatures, imitates not just Fosse. "Lyle" is a slap-dashy, slapsticky hoot pulling together a batch of humorous, vaudevillian approaches -- all in a fluid synthesis of style and performance.

The result is an effervescent, exclamatory cacophony of wheezing, whooping silliness.

The one-hour show, based on two popular children's books by Bernard Waber -- "Lyle, Lyle Crocodile" and "The House on East 88th Street" -- centers on a reptile abandoned in the bathtub of an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. He was the former star of a traveling vaudeville show -- and had a penchant for Turkish caviar -- but his impresario-patron fell on hard times and had to let him go.

When members of a family move into the apartment, they get the surprise of their lives. They decide to adopt the scaly green creature (who looks partly like a raised-hair punk), but a crotchety neighbor wants the animal banished. What follows helps the neighbor -- Mr. Grumps -- see beyond Lyle's scales.

Playwright Kevin Kling has adapted the books to maximize the humor, though he leaves out a secondary story in which Lyle is kidnapped, which might make Lyle even more sympathetic.

The production, which toured more than two dozen Midwestern venues before opening Friday at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, has the polish of all that experience.

Director and choreographer Matthew Howe is aided by a fine creative team. The move-in family, for example, is cast with a wife who's taller than her husband. The characters don all kinds of ill-fitting outfits, thanks to costume designer Michael Olich, and their wacky, rubber-chicken-ish movements are made to a soundtrack of pings, plinks and descriptive horns from composer Michael Koerner.

None of this would come off without the hard work and comic talent of the cast, which includes Michael Lee in the nonspeaking title role and Eric Levos as the down-on-his-luck impresario-crocodile kidnapper.

Cast members all have wonderful moments, but Amy Silverman, playing the neighbor Mrs. Nitpicker, has a way of scrunching up her nose that's funny, mousy and hysterical. David Roberts plays the humorless Mr. Grumps with choleric relish. And Tezra Bryant and Noah Bremer do the other ensemble parts.

The show offers so much comedy, and it all streams by so quickly, that it would seem some of the humor might be lost on little children. But many kids today are Internet-savvy and more than up to the challenge of catching the jokes in this funny, slippery "Lyle the Crocodile."

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