This stage adaptation of the 2010 UK children’s novel by Jacqueline Wilson currently coming to life at Delaware Theatre Company, is just about as perfect a musical as could be.
From the beginning we are introduced to the humor and melody of this charming but realistically cynical production; a musical duo hilariously send up a “Thank you” to the sponsors and attendees, while setting the tone for the night to come.
The curtain soon rises and the story follows the young life of an English orphan, left by her mother as an infant at the Foundling Hospital where she is given her titular name. Soon after, she joins her foster family until school age, when she is returned to the hospital—much to her resistance. The hospital turns out to be too much of a prison for the imaginative girl, and in search for her birth mother, she runs away to find the circus where she believes her to be.
The acting is of course superb, and the talent on stage fully immerse themselves into their multiple roles, some switching between characters so vastly different—there are multiple “horses”—you forget they are being portrayed by the same performer. Their ability as a group and as individuals to elicit wide ranging emotions from the audience in just a single line of dialog was entirely engaging and kept eyes firmly on the stage—so much so that my kids, who normally squirm in their seats raging with adolescent energy, sat completely transfixed for the entire show.
That focus was certainly necessary. The scenery and stage design are absolutely fantastic, but an assemblage of ladders, scaffolds, aerial silks and hoops became a veritable jungle gym for the actors, who handled the physical demands of climbing and swinging and contorting their bodies all to make real the carefree whimsy of the heroine’s imaginative “picturing games”. The actors crawled all over that rig; so much so, that if you took your eyes off one corner of the stage, you’d miss something, only to be greeted by another actor, dropping out of the ceiling in an entirely different role.
The singing was excellent too, and most of the upbeat numbers had an Annie-like element, where the songs blended with the choreography in a way that kept the audience informed of the plot and character motivations, and also had a pretty good beat.
None of this would be cohesive without the score, however. The two musicians who greeted us in the beginning have been with us the whole time; off stage a bit with an arsenal of instruments to rival any 1930’s RKO radio theater production. When the mood called for it, they were there to guide us along; a sweet accordion dirge to soften the blow of a child passing from influenza, a calliope-like polka to signal the arrival of a circus elephant, and a heartfelt piano to gently ease us into a life changing reunion. All the while, they would be there to remind us of the whimsy of the real and make-believe life seen through Hetty’s eyes.
Director Bud Martin gets a nod too for pulling off this unique family theater experience. Split into two acts, neither half has that obvious sense of scene-to-scene linear narrative. Instead, it’s more like a dream situation where we flow into each new phase of our heroine’s life much like she does, against our will but awaiting each new moment with fierce anticipation.
Grab your tickets now!