A vine grows in Brooklyn

Jack and the Beanstalk

Book, music and lyrics by Karl Greenberg and Dave Hall
Directed by Bruce Merrill
Manhattan Children’s Theatre
52 White St. (212/352-3101; www.TheaterMania.com)
Non-union production (closes May 21)
Review by Byrne Harrison

The true test of any children’s theatre production is the reaction of the kids. In that sense, Jack and the Beanstalk, Manhattan Children’s Theatre’s final main-stage production of the season, was a solid success. However, next to the exceptional productions that preceded it this season, especially the outstanding The Last of the Dragons, Jack seems just a bit bland.

Jack (Matt Mager), as imagined by playwright Karl Greenberg, is now a wannabe artist living in Brooklyn. Like his fairy-tale model, he’s a bit of a dreamer and really bad with money. Try as she might, his Mother (Noreen Foster) is unable to make ends meet and forces Jack to sell his beloved, and surprisingly well-spoken, Cow (Drew Honeywell, who also plays the Goose that lays the golden eggs and the magic Harp). As expected, a Man (Matthew Gandolfo) tricks him into giving up his cow for some magic beans, they grow into a vine, and he steals a goose from the Giant (Ian Sweeney). From there, the story diverges from the fairy tale as Jack drapes himself in the trappings of wealth and loses touch with the things that made him truly happy. But things work out in the end, even for the mean giant.

As expected from a Manhattan Children’s Theatre production, the acting was superb. Matt Mager was likable as the goofy and irresponsible Jack. Noreen Foster shone as his braying and exasperated Mother. Ian Sweeney’s big-eared Giant wasn’t menacing, a good thing for the young children in the audience, but comic and crude; the children really enjoyed him. Matthew Gandolofo’s roles -- he played the swindler, a landlord, and the giant’s servant -- were all completely over-the-top in the best sense of the phrase and showed off his comic abilities. A wonderful treat in this show was Drew Honeywell, whose lovely voice and talented acting were a delight.

Karl Greenberg’s dialog was a little uninspired, and though Dave Hall’s music was upbeat and peppy, the lyrics sometimes fell a little flat, too. Still, director Bruce Merrill and musical director Kristen Lee Rosenfeld did a good job emphasizing the best in the material. Evan O’Brient’s sets were spare but fascinating -- a framework of stairs and platforms that could be used to represent all the different locations in the play. Still, given the playwright’s choice to lay the scene in Brooklyn, a set that created a more urban flavor might have been a better choice.

But did the audience really notice these things? No, probably not. And did the children enjoy the show? Yes, they most certainly did. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2006 Byrne Harrison