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Published - Twin Cities Pulse: Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Theater review

CTC Does the Croc Hunter Proud

Theater Critic

Children's Theatre Company, a state of the art establishment that caters to kids without insulting their intelligence, deservedly enjoys international renown.

Artistic director Peter Brosius has made a point of infusing artistry with thoughtful substance that engages young minds even as it enchants with the accustomed trappings of happily-ever-after storylines. Hence, it is not hard to accept the company¹s newest undertaking, while trusting that future offerings will uphold a standard to which we hav grown accustomed.

Lyle the Crocodile is not Children’s Theatre Company at its best, falling short of such splendid offerings as Madeline’s Rescue, Once On This Island and Dr. Suess’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas that thoroughly entertain youngsters and oldsters alike. It is, however, serviceable fare that keeps little faces watching the stage instead of fidgeting in their seats.

Playwright Kevin Kling (The Ice Fishing Play, Lloyd’s Prayer) has adapted Bernard Wabers’ children’s books Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and The House on East 88th Street to dash off an innocuous and fairly formulaic script. The very likable reptilian hero, a charming critter with eccentric eating habits and a big heart, effortlessly brings out the best in just about everyone around. We meet him as the Primm family moves into a posh apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: he has been left there as something of a house-warming gift. In short order, he endears himself not only to the Primms but to their neighbor, the devout gossip and general busybody Mrs. Nitpicker who isn’t content unless she’s bad-mouthing someone.

Having won himself a home and fine social standing, Lyle encounters stalwart sour-puss and building owner Donald Grumps (yes, they all live in Grumps Tower). Grumps is determined to see Lyle put behind bars at the city zoo.

Before we’re done, the lesson is learned that it’s a worthy pursuit in life to follow Lyle’s selfless example of gracious aplomb and dauntless courage.

Michael Lee (Legend of Sleepy Hollow/CTC, As You Like It/Guthrie Theater) does a wonderful job in the title role. Without speaking a word throughout the entire play, Lee’s beauteous smile, dancing manner and wholly delightful countenance exude a world of charisma. He renders the magic of Lyle readily accessible.

The problem with the show is that director/choreographer Matthew Howe departs from a tenet which characteristically distinguishes Children’s Theatre Company, an institution that usually avoids run-of-the-mill material presentations. Calling on the rest of the cast to basically do it by the numbers, Howe has them execute their roles sans interpretation, palming off wide eyes, exaggerated gestures and plenty of broad antics to carry their performances. They do so with an admirable store of boundless energy. Wynne Earle (Just So Stories/California Theatre Center) as Mrs. Primm and ensemble member Tezra Bryant (Seven Guitars/Penumbra Theatre Company) manage to convey moments that transcend the stock directing. Eric Levos (Sweeny Todd/Guthrie Theater) is in fine voice as Hector P. Valenti, Lyle’s original owner and something of carnival barker who provides the story’s narration.

The set is not as lavish as one would expect at CTC where spectacular backdrops often shore up the action in breathtaking compliment. Joe Dodd’s scenic design nonetheless is a piece of bright handiwork that frames the entertainment in an eye-friendly, multipurpose structure. Costume designer Michael Olich shows a keen eye for character, devising an image which both supports the illusion that a crocodile can walk about on two foot and permits Michael Lee to exhibit the nuances of personality.

All things considered, Children’s Theatre Company has not let us down. It simply could have done a better job of living up to its reputation.

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