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The first half of Theatre in the Park’s 2005-06 season consisted of their annual mainstay, A Christmas Carol, and a lauded production of the international hit, “ART.” But the second half consists entirely of works both penned and directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, Ira David Wood III. The second of these is Um Dilly, which opened this last weekend; it is Wood’s first-ever attempt at writing a play, and he chose to write a musical! Considering that, it is a fairly good piece of work, even if Wood, same as Shakespeare, did not at all mind borrowing openly from other sources. But the music, lyrics, and book are still quite original; and considering it is a first attempt, anyone keeping score would have to give this look back at childhood at least a “P” (for purdy durn good).
Wood did not scrimp; the cast is 19 people large. The interesting thing to note about that, however, is that only five of them can boast a height greater than four feet tall. Since this tale is about the eighth summer of a boy named Tommy (Eddie Hardy), 14 of the cast are at or near that age. They make up the neighborhood kids that Tommy plays with, but the gang (as in Our Gang; this play is set in the 1950s) often make Tommy the butt of their jokes, and he often finds himself alone.
(The members of the “gang” are Navar Dyer, Neven Dyer, Hannah Goetz, Caylee Hobson, Conner Hobson, Alexander Hoffman, Amaya Lynn, Lance Martinez, Lily Caroline Rashid, Emily Schmid, Callie Stephenson, Sydney ter Avest, and Sarah Zimmer.)
Of the kids, we learn the names of only three, but they are important. Ralph (Conner Hobson) is the crew chief; all the kids look to him as their leader. Second in command is the neighborhood tomboy, Bertha (Callie Stephenson); if the first mate’s position were ever challenged, Bertha’s mouth would soon quash any such notion. The third is Shirley (Hannah Goetz), this show’s romantic lead; she is Tommy’s best friend and is the princess Tommy rescues in his “great adventure.” The rest of the gang, 10 in number, populate Tommy’s hometown, are the members of the local sandlot baseball team, and are also the singers and dancers in the company numbers—quite a load to be carrying on young shoulders.
The adults are comprised of Tommy’s parents (Josh Long and Patty Mercer); Tommy as he appears to us later in life, as the Narrator (Ruffin Hicks); the neighborhood meanie, Mr. Hanley (Brian Scott); and the imaginary friend that gets Tommy through this very tough summer, Mr. Bubs (Samuel Ellitotte Whisnant). Of the adults, we come to like Mr. Bubs the best, not only because he is the hero, but because, being Tommy’s imaginary friend, he has the ability to care for Tommy even more closely than his “real” parents do. But it bears mentioning that two of the adults put in double duty as members of Tommy’s imaginary adventure. Dad also plays the Sultan in Tommy’s Aladdin adventure; and the resident bad guy, Mr. Hanley, also doubles as the villain in same. As Zoltar, the Sultan’s evil sorcerer, Brian Scott without doubt has absolutely the most fun, especially when it comes to singing his signature song, “Evil Spell.” The song is a bona fide tongue-tangler, and anyone who pulls it off as well as he does has good reason to grin. The gang has double-duty, too; they play all the other characters that people Tommy’s flight of fancy.
Given that this show is a musical, it is fair to note that, as a group, the kids generally fare better on the music than do the adults. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, whenever the kids sing, they do so together and in unison, as in the opening number, “Summertimes Are Forevertimes,” as well as the title song, “Um-Dilly (Hi).” Therefore, what an individual may lack in musical acumen, he makes up for with youthful enthusiasm. Of the five adults, only three of them must sing, but with the exception of Scott’s aforementioned “Evil Spell,” the adults — Dad and Mr. Bubs — have a bit more difficulty with this music, to the point that they were both caught going a touch flat from time to time.
There’s a reason for that, too. Children learn languages and music faster and easier than do their adult counterparts. So the kids have far less trouble with this music than the big guys. The adults don’t have trouble with the words; they have trouble with the rests. Like the immortal critique by the Emperor of Mozart’s music, Wood’s has “too many notes.” Where these too many notes fall are between verses. The kids find a way to handle them; but the adults don’t know what to do with them. As they have lost — so states the theme of the show — the ability to use their own vivid imaginations, so these adults have lost the ability to imagine what they are to do with themselves until their next verse starts.
Make no mistake. If you are under four feet tall, you will have a blast at this show. If you are a relative of a cast member, you will be charmed. But unless your theater-going engagements have been limited lately to your children’s drama classes, you may wish to give this particular show a pass. While it is a loving restoration of Wood’s first play, it is written for children by a novice in the field. And that makes it a purdy durn good way from the usually excellent TIP fare.
Theatre in the Park presents Um Dilly Friday, April 7 and 14, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 8 and 15, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 9, at 3 p.m. on the mainstage at the Ira David Wood Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors 55+). 919/831-6058. Note 1: The 3 p.m. April 8th show is a private performance for Bank of America Kids Day. Note 2: Arts Access will provide audio description of the 8 p.m. April 8th performance. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/.