The importance of being generous

The Selfish Giant

Adapted from the short story by Oscar Wilde
Book by Kristin Walter
Music and lyrics by Larisa Bryski
Directed by Bruce Merrill
Manhattan Children's Theatre
380 Broadway (212/352-3101)
Non-union production (closes May 23rd)
Review by Charles Battersby

Oscar Wilde's short story "The Selfish Giant" is a perfect hunk of raw material to adapt into a children's-theatre piece. It's warm-hearted, magical, and even has a moral about sharing.

In Wilde's story, the Giant has a beautiful garden, in which children love to play. Unsurprisingly, the Giant is, in fact, quite selfish and doesn't want anyone else enjoying his garden. When he builds a wall to keep out the kids, he gets his comeuppance, since Spring refuses to come to his garden without children, leaving the Giant's home in winter all year round.

In adapting "... Giant" for the stage, MCT has made a few changes, setting it in the present, making it a musical and, most notably, the ending. In Wilde's story, the Giant's favorite child develops stigmata and reveals that he was Jesus all along; then he takes the Giant up to Heaven, saying "Today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise." The MCT decided to go with a less Jesus-centric ending and closed the show with an upbeat musical finale where no one had blood leaking from their palms. This was a vast improvement.

This finale is one of five songs that made their way into the show, which is rather light on the music, and doesn't even have an opening number. This is a shame, since Larisa Bryski's music is quite good, especially the duet between the Giant (Joseph Smith) and his first friend, Sarah (Christina Pickard). The clever music also includes a couple of percussion pieces that represent Winter's elements.

Smith made a good Giant, using stilts to appear more gigantic (and even moving around set pieces in stilts too!). Smith's character changed from grumpy old monster to lovable old monster, and he pulled of this transformation convincingly. Pickard also stood out as the Giant's friend Sarah, and as a vapid bimbo personifying Hail.

Christie Phillips's set was deceptively simple, coming across, at first, as mere cardboard but growing more elaborate and imaginative as the play progressed, and as more pieces were added to form the giant's fence, or symbolizing the effects of winter on the garden. A cunning special effect was also later employed to make winter "magically" disappear.

Aaron Maston's costume design took the play in an unexpected yet pleasing direction, dressing the Giant like a Mean Old Man, rather than a fairy-tale monster, and concealing the stilts he wore under flared trousers. Mastin also dressed the anthropomorphic representations of winter like a '40s gangster and a group of molls.

The Manhattan Children's Theatre's artistic director, Bruce Merrill, showed a very sharp insight into his audience's minds. One recurring gag involved a sign that read: "Trespassers will prosecuted," which has words too big for many kids to read. To get around this, the characters (children themselves) sounded out the big words for the audience. The kids weren't just having fun, they were building their vocabularies too.

And no parents had to explain to their child what "stigmata" means.

(Also featuring Jody Flader, Aaron Mize, and Elliot Weinstock.)

  Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby