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'Phantom Tollbooth' engages; 'Silent' treatment is sophomoric

StageReview Norton Juster's 1961 children's classic ``The Phantom Tollbooth'' is a delightfully daffy story of a young boy's journey out of boredom and into the world of meaning and wonder. A whimsical tale of magic and mystery, it is a clever allegory fueled by sophisticated wordplay and wrapped in the guise of fantastical nonsense. At its heart, however, a wealth of valuable life lessons show how we connect with the world around us.

The Wheelock Family Theatre's professional premiere of ``The Phantom Tollbooth'' brings Juster's story to vivid life in a new musical adapted by Juster himself (with Sheldon Harnick, best known as the Tony Award-winning lyricist of ``Fiddler on the Roof''). Considering the richness and invention of Juster's book, the author has done an admirable job streamlining the story for the musical, charting young Milo's journey from his bedroom, through the phantom tollbooth, and into the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Along the way, Milo encounters King Azaz and the Mathemagician, the sleepy Lethargarians, and snarling, sniveling Demons (but alas, no Humbug, no Alec).

Under the direction of James P. Byrne and featuring lively choreography by Laurel Stachowicz, the 90-minute show is engaging and well paced. The cast, featuring children as well as some of Wheelock's most cherished veterans, is excellent throughout.

Ricardo Engermann is a stand-out as Tock, bringing brilliant physicality and charming details to the beloved watchdog. Young Tristan Viner-Brown is terrific as Milo, with strong stage presence and a clear, assured singing voice.

While none of the songs are memorable, the music (by the late Arnold Black) is colorful and tuneful, expertly played by the small pit orchestra.

("The Phantom Tollbooth"; A musical in two acts; At Wheelock Family Theatre through Nov. 30; 617-879-2300)


'Silent' treatment

Remember those ``silent movie'' skits you'd put on at camp as a kid, jerkily illumined by shaken flashlights? Apply stage spots, live piano (well, keyboard), and extend the jape to 19 scenes lasting nearly two hours and you've got ``The Silent Movie Play'' as sophomorically conceived by the Rough & Tumble Theatre ensemble.

The long-winded (if unspoken) saga of a shop boy trying to clear his name after being framed for robbery, this nonverbal script doesn't skip a cliche, and the actors deliver every last one with a knowing wink. A couple of the performers could probably achieve gainful employment in a real play (provided they don't sound like Lina Lamont).

As the put-upon kid, Tim Barney conjures a cross between a young Cagney and Baryshnikov as he moons calfishly over the shopkeeper's daughter. Kristin Baker reprises the latter role after a six-year hiatus. Decked out in a chartreuse '60s shirtwaist and harlequin glasses, she's sufficiently piquant to warrant a brief revival, perhaps in digest form; she's also effective as a busybody landlady and insufferably perky mime.

Unfortunately, that precis pretty much constitutes the job description for the entire cast, and several members - notably Irene Daly - provide proof that it's possible to overact in a melodrama.

There was a reason silent movies were silent (a technology lag), and talented directors outdid themselves to bridge the gap. Though meant as a light-spirited sendup, this simple-minded pastiche does a disservice to that artistry. Do yourself a favor: Stay home and rent ``City Lights'' or ``Broken Blossoms'' instead. Or contribute to the American Film Institute's preservation efforts.

("The Silent Movie Play"; Play in two acts; At Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 22; 617-426-2787)


"The Phantom Tollbooth"
"The Phantom Tollbooth" is at Wheelock Family Theatre through Nov. 30. For more information, call 617-879-2300.
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