The late child psychologist Bruno
Bettelheim once observed that children prefer metaphysical questions to
physical ones. If they ask why the sky is blue, they don’t want to hear
about the refraction of sunlight through a prism. Similarly, in Letters young
voices ask why turtles die or why a divorced father might choose to
move to the underpopulated wasteland of Wyoming, no answers about life
cycles and economic conditions are going to suffice. A child does not
have the time to absorb details of biology and economics and knows only
the frustration of disappointment, still painful to the individual,
even when pet death and family migration are commonplace occurrences.
Adults in the audience know the kids will get over it and that brooking
disappointment is part of the maturation process.
This produced an unexpected bracketing
of childish complaint from mature audiences. When the lady (or guy)
sings the blues on stage, we empathize. Here we become godlike, aware
of the larger picture, knowing the “How?” even if we do not answer the
Imposed upon the many letters is the
outline of a plot, in which there are five characters. At the center is
13-year-old Brett (Andrew Dain), on the precipice of manhood and
failing to cope with his parents’ divorce, as we see with his opening
solo, “Thirteen.” His father is set on moving to Wyoming. A bit of a
jock, obsessive about his baseball cap, but filled with introspection,
he’s another avatar of the tough-tender hero that’s been with us since
Smitten with Brett is lovely Joanna
(Monica Chetwin), but often she is distracted by her annoying younger
brother Kicker (Alec Funiciello), as seen in their witty first-act
duet, “An Only Child.” As kid brothers are usually reliable comic
foils, and Funiciello supplies the right impishness, Kicker is allowed
a second solo on what’s to be learned about killing ants.
Lanky Theo (Nick Ziobro) is a second
comic player, but one with more pathos. Such a hopeless nerd that he
cannot deliver the high-five hand-slap, Theo was born with zero
abilities on the baseball field. His musical reward is the rousing
“Like Everybody Else,” backed by the company, one of the strongest
numbers in the first act.
The shortest member of the cast also
sports the biggest voice. Iris (Kayla Campbell) is also a little sweet
on Brett, not that it does her any good, and her affections flow
instead to Arnold, her pet turtle. Her numbers in the first act, backed
by the company, “Arnold” and “Questions for the Rain,” call for Judy
Garland-Liza Minnelli-sized volume, which she delivers effortlessly.
The evocation of God’s name should not
imply proselytizing, and not all the children are Christian. Kicker
asks of the Divinity, “Did you have as much trouble learning Hebrew as
I am?” Some of the children’s doubts are big ones, such as, “What is it
like to die? I just want to know: I don’t want to do it.” Or when
Brett, the nominal lead asks evasively, “How do you feel about people
who don’t believe in you? Somebody else wants to know.”
Then again, this is not a show for
skeptics and doubters. The last two company numbers are “How Come” and
the non-denominational answer is “I Know.” It’s a modest faith.
Director Tursi has had much experience
with school groups and has developed a practiced eye in the often
troublesome art of auditioning young people, reportedly 30 applicants
for five slots. Each of the five is an experienced player, some of them
professional, including roles at Syracuse Stage in A Christmas Carol (Funiciello) and Fiddler on the Roof (Funiciello and Dain) and Wit’s End Players’ Sweeney Todd (Dain). Tursi works the kids as hard as he would any troupe, with so much choreographed movement from scenes that Letters sometimes looks like a dance show.
Composer David Evans, the cognoscenti will remember, wrote the score to the sophisticated but lost musical Birds of Paradise, brought to the Redhouse by Gerard Moses and Laura Austin in July 2005. His music here will remind many of Sesame Street,
not that there’s anything wrong with that. Music director Roy George
and drummer Leigh Presutto enhance memorable numbers like “How Come?”
and “Like Everybody Else.”
Children’s Letters to God is often compared with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but deep down it has a warmer heart.
This production runs through Sept. 20. See Times Table for more information.