Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Zeke Dolezalek.
It’s time to review the second new musical in town that derives itself from the “Island of Misfit Toys” in the claymation classic “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer.” Unlike Pride Films and Plays’ America’s Best Outcast Toy, CPA Theatricals’ The Land of Forgotten Toys is more of a traditional Christmas vehicle, filled with plenty of seasonal joy and values along with its bright songs and silliness. With a talented, endearing cast and a formidable design team, this show is very entertaining. Its songs (composed by Dylan Marcaurele with lyrics by Jaclyn and Jennifer Enchin) are mostly wonderful, and the voices that sing them powerful. The Enchin twins’ book, however, doesn’t have the same consistency as their lyrics; when scenes are focused on character development and real emotion, they are fine, but much of the humor and conflict here feels like it needed more time in the workshop.
Based on a short story by Larry Little, The Land of Forgotten Toys begins in a toy store in Sheboygan where gifted high school graduate Grace (Bre Jacobs) works for her Aunt Char (Liz Norton) alongside her friend Nikki (Mary-Margaret Roberts). Char, who has cared for Grace since her parents died, insists that the girl will take over the store when she turns eighteen instead of fulfilling her dream of going to college to study astronomy. Unlike Nikki, though, who bleeds Christmas spirit and loves her job, Grace feels out of place and underused running a toy store and believes she is drawn to some greater purpose.
The opportunity for her to discover that purpose arrives suddenly when, a few days before Christmas, and with the help of a bit of magic, both girls end up transported to the far north to help solve a major crisis in the making: Santa Claus (Randolph Johnson) has been kidnapped by his evil sister Charlotta (also Norton). Aided by the Queen of the Northern Sky (Katie Reid), a misfit elf named Schmedrick (Quinn Kelch), and a bunch of anthropomorphic playthings that, for various reasons, have found themselves cast into the Land of Forgotten Toys, the two young heroines are tasked with nothing less than saving Christmas from falling into Charlotta’s greedy clutches. It’s sheer heaven for the holiday-obsessed Nikki and a major shock to the more rational Grace, who no longer even celebrates Christmas with her aunt.
The acting here is excellent. Jacobs grounds the entire show with her passionate, soul-searching portrayal of Grace, whose awakening to the notion that Santa is real takes some time. Nikki is her polar (no pun intended) opposite: bubbly and happy and silly and, even at eighteen, very content to live comfortably believing in everything to do with Santa. Roberts is great in this role: her nonstop sparkle brightens everything it touches (even the Icicle Giant, a take on the “Rudolph’s” Abominable Snow Monster of the North). She especially brightens the life of Schmedrick, a kindred innocent spirit with whom she falls easily in love. The wiry Kelch is a lot of fun as the shy elf who wants to repair things instead of building toys, as much a loner as “Rudolph’s” Hermie the elf-dentist, whom Schmedrick references.
As to the “adults,” Johnson makes a fine Santa; though he spends much of the play in a candy cane cell unable to do much. He is joined on the side of Good by the Queen, Reid’s pleasing personification of the constellation Cassiopeia. The writers, though, are not so much interested in their side of the ledger: “nice” is never as interesting as “naughty.” They give the bulk of their North Pole attention to Norton’s Charlotta, who (along with two elves played by Joe Scott and Maya Keane) revels in her evil; her desire to depose her brother is based as much on the joy of being bad as it is on her excessive greed. Norton gives this character her campy best, but too much of what Charlotta does here is underwritten; for all the stage time she commands, she remains stereotyped and flat, and her scenes are almost all less effective because the Enchins have given Norton no real nuance to play with. The great evil characters (like the Grinch, for example) have layers within them. Charlotta is mostly just a comical portrayal of naughtiness. Children might well enjoy her more than adults; the character would feel right at home as the villain in a Christmas cartoon.
Balancing all of this are scenes featuring the Forgotten Toys. Brittney Brown gets to rock out as Karaoke, a singing machine that is unfortunately often off-key. Evelyn Crane plays the misfit “Barbara” doll, dressed as a businesswoman and too adult and boring to make a good toy for little girls. Lucas Crossman has fun as a taxicab transformer whose popularity faded with the rise of Uber (a joke that, unlike several others in this show, lands well) as does Jabari Thurman as a Game Dude with an electrical short. But the scene-stealing toys are Cathy Reyes McNamara’s Fun Oven Supreme, an Easy Bake Oven knockoff who burns everything she cooks (and spends the whole play with dry ice smoke steaming from her clothing) and Joshua Bishop’s Trivia, a know-it-all take on the old Simon toy who is comically annoying as he spouts all sorts of trivial factoids. All of these toys become vital in Grace and Nikki’s quest to locate and free Santa.
Director Nicholas Reinhart and choreographer Dina DiCostanzo are brilliant at creating and moving around all of these characters (as well as the toy store’s customers in the opening and closing scenes, each of whom feels like a real person). Between them, they make great use of Evan Frank’s set design, a stage that is wide open but manages to have many different looks. Music director Stephen Coakley has the entire cast singing beautifully, G. “Max” Maxin IV’s lights and Kevan Loney’s projections are critical in establishing scenes and emotional moments, and Robert Hornbostel’s sound design (featuring a wonderfully realized ice monster) is excellent. But the real design kudos here have to go to costume designer Christina Leinicke and props designer James Radloff; without their clear efforts, a great deal of this show would not have worked.
Though I do think that some of its elements need more work, this is a fun, creative show that is highly entertaining. It also has room for a bit of expansion if the writers should desire to spend a little more time fleshing out some of the more abrupt or awkward moments. (There is even a natural place to break for intermission if it grew enough to need one.) As it is, though, the music is wonderful whether the songs are personal and poignant or broad and comical, the characters are interesting and memorable, and the entire production is wonderfully professional. Even if some of it doesn’t work as well as it might, this is still a sparkling, enjoyable new musical that makes a fine addition to Chicago’s extensive seasonal lineup.
The Land of Forgotten Toys is a CPA Theatricals production now playing at Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.