We’ve all had some point in our lives when fear of failure grips us and tells us we’re inadequate. As adults, it’s popularly referred to as “imposter syndrome.” And it can drive us to do all manner of crazy, desperate things.
For rising third-grader Henry, the protagonist in the Alliance Theatre’s sophisticated world premiere musical adaptation of the celebrated children’s book The Incredible Book Eating Boy, it drives him to start voraciously devouring the printed word — literally.
The third grade, Henry croons in an early ballad, is going to be a disaster because he doesn’t enjoy books: “I wanna be the guy who’s good at reading, but I’m only good at eating.” But behind the eye rolls and shrugged shoulders is a deep insecurity — that maybe he’s not intelligent and capable enough to succeed, especially in a classroom filled with bookworms.
All that begins to change when Henry takes a page from his dog’s playbook and begins, well, eating pages himself. Amazingly, he discovers that he instantly absorbs the information therein, elevating him — temporarily, at least, until the unnatural munching inevitably wreaks havoc — to the status of kid genius.
At a 45-minute run time, half of what a usual play would require in attention span, Boy makes efficient use of a charming and clever premise and expeditiously ushers us through a full (if slight) character arc. The result is an easy-to-understand story that never veers into patronizing territory. Almost everyone onstage, in other words, manages to avoid the somewhat grating tendency to talk too often in the more stereotypical “children’s theater voice.”
Based on the book of the same title by celebrated Australian-born, Ireland-raised and now Brooklyn-based children’s author Oliver Jeffers, the show was adapted by playwright and screenwriter Madhuri Shekar, who already has an established history in Atlanta. She won the 2014 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and now has had four plays produced on the Alliance stage. The new musical, which runs through August 14, also boasts some clever, pun-plump lyrics by Christian Albright and funky, disco-infused tunes by Christian Magby — both Atlanta natives.
Holding his own with an entirely adult cast, 11-year-old lead actor Alexander Chen, as Henry, is a fortunate find. Chen boasts some impressive pipes, yet the most compelling quality of his performance is the palpable joy he exudes at performing, which is endearing and infectious. His face lights up whenever he hits that hard-to-reach high note or nails the more complicated dance move, which works well for a narrative all about embracing the times when we must attempt the things that scare us most.
In the all-around stellar adult ensemble, standouts are Rhyn McLemore, who most recently turned in a devastating performance as Norma McCorvey (the real-life “Jane Roe”) in Horizon Theatre’s timely production of Roe, and powerhouse vocalist Brad Raymond, who punctuates each joke with precision and distinguishes a multitude of quickly rotating characters with engaging specificity.
Scenic designer Kat Conley‘s nimble set transforms from game show to surreal fantasy sequence to classroom to doctor’s office. It also feels like a pop-up book come to life, with writing, equations and other scribblings swirling around each scene. Side note: Kudos to props master Suzanne Cooper Morris who made the real-looking book pages that Henry eats onstage throughout the show edible — her stagecraft recipe is super thin rice paper.
Also impressive is the choreography by Danielle Swatzie, specifically in one nightmarish scene in which the books themselves fight back. In the standout song, “Henry on the Menu,” a sinister-looking gang of giant rectangular volumes with actors’ faces glowering from their center take to task the boy who’s been decimating the library one page at a time. One wonders at first how someone even approaches setting movement to something like that, but, by gum, it happens — with binding-busting gyrations and lunges forward aplenty.
And then there’s the deft direction by True Colors Theatre Company Artistic Director Jamil Jude, who has injected some immensely creative and storybook-like touches into the action. Jude knows how to mine the scenes for humor in a way that both gets why musicals can be sublime and why they’re inherently kind of ridiculous, too.
Like, for instance, when the school janitor punctuates the crescendo of a big ensemble number by generously spritzing air freshener like he’s in Les Mis waving a French flag. Or when Henry projectile vomits from eating too many books, and it comes out as confetti (really putting a new spin on the concept of a “gag”).
Usually, it’s unfair to assess a play primarily aimed at elementary school kids by the same standards as, say, Henrik Ibsen. Yet this production’s acting, direction and set design all operate at a high professional standard.
While it might not necessarily provide the most challenging evening out for adults on their own (after all, the showtime on Saturday night is the still daylight-infused 6 p.m.), it’s certainly enjoyable and thoughtful enough for adults accompanying their kiddos. After all, if Pixar has repeatedly illustrated, there is plenty for grown-ups to be found in broadly welcoming tales.
Like the meta subtext of the show, the moral is that we must not underestimate stories with pictures simply because they’re accessible — but instead embrace the many different ways we digest the world around us.
There’s also a message within the show about the importance of adults making an effort to meet kids where they’re at — something that’s become more of a luxury of better funded, less strapped-for-resources schools with smaller classrooms and less teacher burnout. Of course, this show is not tasked with tackling those problems, nor should it be. Instead, it offers the vision of a world where adults listening to kids and providing a learning environment best suited to their needs might be possible.
Be sure to check out the corresponding High Museum of Art exhibit, 15 Years of Picturing Books, which boasts more of the colorful and distinct imaginings from Jeffers’ head. It’s a world we should all aspire to live in.
Alexis Hauk is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian