by Hedy Weiss
July 12, 2010
Those who know their Hans Christian Andersen will recall that in "The Emperor's New Clothes" he spun a tale about how the arrogance and insecurity of the powerful can lead to a laughable loss of clear thinking and common sense.
His vain emperor was so hoodwinked by a couple of hucksters posing as weavers that he ended up marching through town in the nude -- convinced that only the stupid would deny the reality of the new set of clothes he'd been given. Only the exclamations of a guileless child brought truth to the situation.
In their newly imagined 75-minute family musical, now at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, composer-lyricist Alan Schmuckler (who did such a beguiling job with "How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?") and writer David Holstein have devised a wonderfully zesty hybrid of Andersen's fairy tale -- one that also deals with eternal issues (parents vs. children, the rich vs. the poor), and inserts of-the-moment commentary about everything from globalization and Internet business to concern about carbon footprints.
Sophisticated enough for any adult, the show also contains just enough goofy vaudeville to entertain 10-year-old boys. Two such acquaintances who saw the show reported they loved the ever-morphing "Three Stooges" of the ensemble: Mark David Kaplan, Jarrod Zimmerman and George Andrew Wolff. They found the villain, Lord Vince (played with panache by Jonathan Weir) "slimy and great." And they were hugely amused by some ambiguous names.
Though it is a tale of textiles, this take on "The Emperor's New Clothes" is really about threadbare values. But be assured, while the latter are fully exposed, the pudgy emperor, played with verve by Don Forston, keeps his long underwear on. As for his college-bound, socially concerned daughter, Sam (the appealing, rich-voiced Megan Long), she favors recycled jeans and gives her fancy clothes to the poor peasants.
It is Sam who also begins to see that "the Swindlers," the tailors who come up with the notion of "invisible cloth," are pretty transparent. (Anne Gunn is the scheming Mama Swindler, while Kimberly, her brainy but underachieving "son who should have been a daughter," is played by Alex Goodrich, an actor whose easy charm and wacky physical humor are hard to resist.)
Schmuckler (whose upcoming projects include "Boyfred," a musical TV series for Sony and ABC) has a clear gift for sharp, colloquial lyrics and punchy melodies, and I hope there will be an adult Broadway musical in his future.
Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell keeps things popping, and gets huge laughs from some cast-enhancing dummy peasants. Shawn Stengel's music direction is ideal. And Kevin Kepinet has created a fanciful laser-cut kingdom set, with whimsical lighting by Jesse Klug and fashion-forward (and -backward) costumes by Debbie Baer for a musical whose moral might be: Concentrate on your conscience, not your closet.