Manhattan Children's Theatre has a mission of providing affordable entertainment for the children of Gotham. Taking a seat at one of their shows on any given weekend (if you are fortunate enough to get in) one can easily see that this high-quality entertainment is not just for kids. The Elves and the Shoemaker by Kristin Walter provided a brand of holiday cheer that helped to solidify MCT's reputation as the place where sophisticated New Yorkers (not yet in kindergarten) go. What is unclear, however, is who was having more fun -- the parents or the kids.
Eric (Joseph Smith), the only shoemaker of Grimmsville, can't get a break. He makes shoes that are miserably uncomfortable and impossible to walk in. He is without a means to provide for his family, as no one in the town wants to buy his shoes. Sitting alone in the woods pondering her family's fate, his daughter, Shannon (Nicole Cicchella), is confronted by a stranger who offers her the deal of a lifetime in exchange for her uncomfortable shoes. She is given a magical medallion that holds "the charm of the elves." Wanting to help her family, she tries the chant. When she does, her words beckon a pair of elves that show up nightly at the shoemaker's home creating comfortable and popular shoes. With his shoes now wanted throughout the land, Eric and his family have more gold than they can count. But they quickly begin to realize that all the money in the world doesn't necessarily buy happiness, after they become greedy and come to blows over the cash. Shameful, isn't it?
Walter is a clever playwright. She masterfully writes one line for the children to enjoy and follows it up with a quick-witted one that seems to nudge the parent in the rib.
Bruce Merrill's direction was clear and thematic. What was most appreciated was the staging of the elves and their physical relationship to the "real world where humans lived." Using choreography and stylized movements to set physical barriers and distances, the show boasted a few more dimensions than expected. Merrill is a directorial genius of the children's-theatre genre. The scenes were also nice and short, keeping the audience's attention span in mind.
Cicchella is the possessor of a vocal talent in the vein of Paula Poundstone or Roseanne. Every time she spoke was sheer hilarity.
Christi Spain-Savage, who played Fiona, the mother, was charming to watch and played well off Smith, who was the ideal straight man to his family's histrionics.
The very lithe Logan Tracey, who played the role of Zuzu, displayed a shining comic edge as the female elf. Don C. Makowski, who played Herbie, the male elf, was perfectly cast as Tracey's opposite.
Christine Phillips, who designed the set, did an outstanding job once again, after demonstrating her immense creativity for the set of Aesop's Fables earlier in the season. The family's house was on wheels, so that the play could start with the front of the house to the audience and then switch to the inside of the house once the show got going, with the help of the actors. The forest where the elves lived was draped with all sorts of shoes in a festive way. It would be safe to say that coming to see a show at this theatre would be worth it just to see what Phillips will do next.
Bryan Patrick Byrne's lighting was notable, and Ainat Telem's prop design complemented the magical touch of the set, especially tools used to make the shoes.
Aaron Mastin did a beautiful job costuming the show, particularly with the elves. Dressed in outfits that were reminiscent of the dancers in Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" video, the choices worked to keep the model-like actors looking like elves. Well ... cool elves anyway.
Those parents in search of a way to entertain the troops on the weekend need to look no further. MCT's production values seem to only be getting better. Broadway could learn a lot from the little theatre company that could.
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Copyright 2004 Jade Esteban Estrada