|Katherine Leigh Doherty as Lilly, in the Wheelock Family Theatre show. (CGBaldwin)|
Lilly, the young mouse created by children's book writer Kevin Henkes, has all of the verve and solipsism of a small child. She prances around in bright red cowboy boots, wears giant purple movie star glasses, and declares that she loves everything in the world - except her new baby brother, who is a "lump" and therefore doesn't count.
She's a theatrical mouse, in short, so it's little surprise that she has found her way into a stage show: "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," which plays through May 11 at the Wheelock Family Theatre. Adapted by Kevin Kling from several of Henkes's books, the play is less a cohesive story than a series of vignettes, in which Lilly becomes best friends with a pair of boy mice, struggles to adjust to her brother, and takes an act of vengeance she later regrets when her teacher confiscates her prized purse. She makes mistakes, scores victories, and launches into a couple of vivid dream sequences when she endures punishments in her Uncooperative Chair.
Wheelock first produced Kling's "Lilly" adaptation in 2001, and it proved engrossing enough for the youngest theatergoers; the show is recommended for ages 3 and up. At a bit more than 90 minutes, this is a long theater experience for very small kids. But relief comes in the form of short, jaunty scenes and cheery interstitials, featuring a chorus of young dancing mice who bop around to the strains of pop music. (Mouse tails make for good props, and they're especially cute when strummed like musical instruments.) Matthew T. Lazure's brightly colored sets have the appealing look of a children's book come to life. The exterior of Lilly's house, shaped like a wedge of cheese, spins to become her living room and her classroom.
Katherine Leigh Doherty, the eighth-grader who plays Lilly, originated the role of Jane in the current Broadway production of "Mary Poppins," and her professional experience shows. She has more than enough stage presence to match the adults around her, and she manages to make Lilly both self-absorbed and lovable. Also notable is fifth-grader Sirena Abalian, who comes close to stealing her scenes as Lilly's tiny grandmother.
Among the adults, Doug Lockwood strikes just the right tone as Lilly's teacher, Mr. Slinger: He swerves back and forth between silly and wise. And a true standout is Gary Thomas Ng, who vamps it up as Lilly's infant brother, Julius, seen as a giant, expressive head attached to a baby doll's body. The costume changes several times throughout the play, and the sight gag stays just as funny.
It's the presence of Julius, even more than the purse in the title, that gives "Lilly" a sense of dramatic arc. The plot meanders, sometimes interestingly, sometimes less so. But the play holds together as the tale of a kid - er, mouse - coming to terms with the fact that she can't control the world. For little ones, this is clearly relatable. And as a first theatergoing experience, "Lilly" makes a strong impression. When the curtain closed and the lights came up, the 3-year-old beside me asked, "Can we stay for the next one?"
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.