“The Phantom Tollbooth,” Norton Juster’s classic 1961 children’s novel, follows an unhappy boy as he discovers what’s important in life through his imagination.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time when it’s not important to hear that curiosity and wonder and learning are important aspects of being a fully functional human being,” explains Piper Goodeve. “It’s compared a lot to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — a child going on this imaginative journey and learning about themselves and the world.”
Goodeve is directing the Weston Playhouse Young Company in “The Phantom Tollbooth” June 13-30 at Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm. The 60-minute musical adaptation of Juster’s novel, with music by Arnold Black and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, premiered in 2007 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of children’s books, wrote in 1996: “The book treats, in fantastical terms, the dread problems of excessive specialization, lack of communication, conformity, cupidity, and all the alarming ills of our time. Things have gone from bad to worse to ugly. The dumbing down of America is proceeding apace. Juster’s allegorical monsters have become all too real.”
The story follows Milo, who is completely, terribly and persistently bored. Not even his favorite toys can capture his attention for more than a moment. All hope seems lost until a mysterious tollbooth appears in his bedroom. Suddenly, he is transported to where life is anything but boring — and perhaps a little too exciting.
“It’s timeless in that regard,” Goodeve said recently by phone about choosing the work for this year’s Young Company production.
“And I also wanted to do what ‘Anne of Green Gables’ did last year, which was to cross generational divides. We had a lot of audience members who were grandparents and parents who were excited to bring their children to introduce them to their favorite story from when they were a child. I wanted to replicate that,” she said.
“That’s something about the Young Company now, that we can be building a new generation of theater lovers — but that’s only possible if the parents and grandparents bring them.”
Goodeve, who was a member of the inaugural Weston Playhouse Young Company, traveled to various colleges and universities to cast this year’s ensemble of theater students, five women and three men.
“It really depends on the combination of what their show is and what the requirements for the main stage show are,” she said. “Last year it was really difficult because we needed really strong actor-singers for ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ but we also needed exceptional dancers for ‘West Side Story.’ This year it was a little less strict because ‘Oklahoma!’ is a little looser than ‘West Side Story’ in that regard.”
Still, “The Phantom Tollbooth” presents its own challenges. All of the actors, except those playing Milo and Tock, are tripling and quadrupling, playing even six and seven different roles.
“I wanted to make sure we were embracing that theatricality, that ensemble-driven, actor-driven idea of theater,” Goodeve said. “We’re going to tap into what’s at the heart of children’s theater, using your imagination.”
And then there is the size of the production, with 17 different locations, and all its big production numbers.
“We finished our first week (of rehearsal) on Sunday and we were already more than three-quarters through the play,” Goodeve said. “These kids are so fast, they’re picking up things so quickly. They’re game to anything I throw at them — and they’re bringing wonderful ideas to the table.”