The squeal of greasepaint

The Ransom of Red Chief

Based on the short story by O. Henry
Adapted by Patricia Barry Rumble
Music and lyrics by Yvonne Steely
Directed by Laura Stevens
Vital Children's Theatre
432 W. 42nd St. (592-4508)
Non-union production (closes Mar. 17)
Review by Frank Episale

Half the fun of any successful children's-theatre production lies in watching the audience. They squeal and giggle and look around at each other and occasionally talk back to the actors. If more of their excitement for theater and storytelling can be preserved, there might be some hope for future audiences yet.

By this measure, Vital Children's Theatre's production of The Ransom of Red Chief was certainly a success. There was more than enough dancing and yelling and low-level violence to keep the kids entertained; their older companions were, in turn, entertained at least as much by the children as they were by the show.

The Ransom of Red Chief is the story of two drifters who decide to kidnap the son of a very rich man. Once they've captured the boy, though, he turns out to be more difficult than they had expected; antics ensue as the kidnapers are forced to play rambunctious games with their charge to keep him entertained, all the while wondering whether they're really going to be able to get anyone to pay to have him returned. The title is derived from the "Cowboys and Indians" game the boy plays through the first half of the story, calling himself "Red Chief."

Patricia Barry Rumble adapted Red Chief from the story by O. Henry with a light touch and a constant sense of play. The energy and motion of the play occasionally gave way to moments of surprising tenderness and sadness, demonstrating Rumble's apparent respect for her audience. The faithful adaptation might make parents uncomfortable, though, as references to "Injuns" and scalping go uncontextualized.

As the kid, Robyn Simpson brought exactly the right kind of presentational enthusiasm and engaging playfulness to her performance. She connected to the children in the audience and her fellow actors on stage consistently and energetically. Britton Herring's Bill was sweet and charismatic, but sometimes had trouble keeping in tune with the songs. As Sam, the "leader" of the kidnapers, Ben Hindell mumbled too many of his lines, speaking quickly and articulating poorly. His timing was good but a lot of the jokes were lost because of his delivery.

The songs, by Yvonne Steely (in arrangements by Jon Rosen), were surprisingly lacking catchiness. Early on in the show, the audience was encouraged to sing along with the performers, but even this tune proved tricky to remember. It seems unlikely that audience members left the theater humming any of the other, less interactive, melodies. Staci Shember's costumes were cute and effective. Sets by Jeff Criddle and the uncredited light design were competent but unremarkable. Director Laura Stevens kept the action moving along briskly but not very inventively, rarely trying to overcome or even address the several limitations of the material.

After the curtain call, the actors thanked everyone for coming and led a round of "Happy Birthday" for a member of the audience. The little girl looked somewhat taken aback at the attention, not realizing, perhaps, that she and the other children in the crowd had been part of the show the whole time. Despite its flaws, The Ransom of Red Chief was certainly a fun way to spend an hour on a weekend afternoon.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2002 Frank Episale