Review: Take a Trip to The Land of Forgotten Toys
THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN TOYS, the new Christmas musical enjoying its world premiere at the Upstairs Mainstage theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Lincoln) is a bit of a magical, holiday surprise. With little to no fanfare, this family-friendly show manages nonetheless to accomplish something extraordinary: it tells a new holiday story that still feels somewhat nostalgic. It harkens back to the stop-motion Rankin/Bass holiday classics, but still feels entirely original.
That is no easy feat. You can credit the story by Larry Little and the book (and lyrics) by twin playwrights Jaclyn and Jennifer Enchin for accomplishing the task. The show has its own original mythology and story to tell.
Orphan Grace (Bre Jacobs) has inherited her parent's toy store in Sheboygan. She has been raised by her aunt Charlotte (Liz Norton) who has been bitterly counting the days until Grace becomes of age and can take over the family business fulltime so that she can pursue her own dreams that were put on hold when she had to step in and raise her niece.
Grace works in the store alongside Nikki (Mary-Margaret Roberts), a grown woman who retains a child-like innocence and still believes in Santa (she swears she once saw the guy, but no one believes her). Grace confides in her that she longs to leave the toy store behind to study the stars Grace's big song "Far Away From Here" (lyrics by the Enchin sisters with music by Dylan MarcAurele) is delivered with both such power and conviction by Jacobs that it just might get little ones to say "let it go" to a certain other icy Disney song. It hits on that universal desire to find both a purpose and place for yourself far beyond your current trappings.
Grace finishes the song on a high note, clutching the star pendant given to her by her parents before they died (we never learn how they met their demise, but that is probably appropriate for a children's show). Before you can say "Wizard of Oz without the tornado" she and Nikki are magically transported to the North Pole where they meet the Queen of the Northern Sky (Katie Reid, who practically radiates with maternal instinct).
The Queen works in partnership with Santa (Randolph Johnson). She brings the broken and forgotten toys back to the North Pole where they can be fixed/refurbished and then passed along to other children. Her current wards are Barbara Doll (Evelyn Crane) cursed with a Karate chop, Karaoke (Brittney Brown) an off-key belter, Fun Oven Supreme (Cathy Reyes McNamara), a working kids' oven with a tendency to burn things and Game Dude (Jabari Thurman), a broken handheld video game player that shocks users. The other two toys in her care aren't really broke so much as they have fallen out of favor with children. Trivia (Joshua Bishop) is a know-it-all trivia game and Taxi Transformer (Lucas Crossman) is a car that can morph into a robot that has been replaced by newer models (namely Uber Transformer and Lyft Transformer).
In addition to the role of Grace's Aunt, Norton also plays Santa's villainous sister Charolotta. Not content to remain in the wrapping room of Santa's workshop, she hatches a plan along with two evil, little elves (Joe Scott and Maya Keane as Elf 1 and Elf 2, respectively) to dispatch with her brother once and for all. As her hench-elves, Scott and Keane are surprisingly menacing despite their small statures and cherubic faces.
The trio kidnap Santa and enlist the help of Schmedrick (a terrific Quinn Kelch), a naïve elf inventor, to unknowingly build a machine that will lead to Santa' demise. It's up to Grace, Nikki and the toys to thwart Charlotta's scheme and save Christmas.
In addition to Grace's big number, Dylan MarcAurele's score features several gems. Roberts and Kelch share great energy and chemistry in the bouncy duet between Schmedrick and Nikki, "I've Never Done That Before." Music director Stephen Coakley's direction on the rousing hymn "There is Always a Light" makes the entire ensemble seem both angelic and larger than it is. Nicholas Reinhart's direction in Charlotta's big show-stopper "A Green Christmas" allows Norton to be appropriately over the top, embodying bits of the Grinch, the Snow and Heat Misers and the Burgermeister Meisterburger. She's a bad person and heaven help the "poor unfortunate soul" who gets in her way.
Christina Leinicke has designed some beautiful costumes, including the Queen of the Northern Sky's flowing gown and gilded tiara. Lighting Designer G. "Max" Maxin IV makes great use of the wrap-around set with clever projections designed by Kevan Loney. Evan Frank's scenic design, while spartan, makes some clever use of nooks within the set.
Still, the show could use a few edits and additions. The main character of Grace is offstage for far too long in the latter half of the show and the character might benefit from a song in which she overcomes the obstacles before her and realizes something about herself to fix this. The Queen of the Northern Sky could also use a tune in which she sets up the show's mythology and setting or assures the toys (perhaps a lullaby).
Despite these minor shortcomings, the first Chicago production from the not-for-profit CPA Theatricals succeeds in crafting a holiday classic featuring strong female characters and an engaging story that should delight families for many more holiday seasons to come.
THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN TOYS: A CHRISTMAS MUSICAL runs through Dec. 29th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets, $45, at www.greenhousetheater.org, or by phone at 773-404-7336.
All photos by Zeke Dolezalek, courtesy of CPA Theatricals.