Regional Theater Review: THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES (South Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on June 2, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

FRACTURED FAIRY TALES

Director Jessica Kubzansky’s imagination is firing on all cylinders, turning frivolity into delight with South Coast Rep’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, a Theatre for Young Audiences production. Playwright John Tracey A. Leigh, Brad Culver, Larry Bates and Matt McGrath in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid TalesGlore closely follows Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s best-selling 1992 children’s book of the same name, turning 13 beloved fairy tales on their ears. We are told that critics praised the book for its insightful send up of the strict morality found in fairy tales, and that many now consider the book to be a masterpiece of postmodern children’s fiction. Um, not really. The musicals Into the Woods and Once upon a Mattress could be labeled with such adjectives. While I think it’s a good lesson for children to discover that an Ugly Duckling grows up to be merely an Ugly Duck, The Stinky Cheese Man is simply silly fun.

Some of the devices seen in Into the Woods show up here, such as a narrator getting caught up in the action and tales getting a mash-up Brad Culver, Erika Schindele, Larry Bates, Amanda Pajer, Matt McGrath, Tracey A. Leigh and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales(“Cinderumpelstiltsken”), but this is basically a series of short segments loosely tied together by The Little Red Hen, whose story continually gets cut off–she wants help baking some bread, but this fowl is out of cluck.  Jack (of beanstalk fame), is the narrator, and his frustration in getting the storybook characters to cooperate is a splendid device to bring the young ones on board. But soon, the 90-minute 2-act play delivers what it promises: Fairly stupid tales, some of which are ridiculous to the point of inane. Which means in the wrong hands, this could be a fairly tedious event.

Fortunately, an engaging cast and Broadway-caliber design team ensure an experience as colorful and fantastical as a dark ride at Disneyland. Each of the ensemble is a strong singer and takes on a variety of roles, with the delightfully elfin Matt McGrath leading the way as our plucky, if exasperated, narrator. Larry Bates dexterously turns from a whiny Matt McGrath and Amanda Pajer in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid TalesPrince to a spoiled stepsister; Erika Schindele squawks “The sky is falling” in a quirky tone neither human nor animal; Tracey A. Leigh is hysterical as the Little Old Lady who bakes up the Stinky Cheese Man; Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper offers up a funny accent, somewhere between South American and Euro-trash, as Foxy Loxy; Amanda Pajer delivers serious attitude as both a cocky rabbit (of “Tortoise and the Hare” fame) and Little Red Running Shoes; and one of the greatest actors of our L.A. stages, Brad Culver, really goes to town with a distinctive mélange of characters and accents — Culver truly is one of the most watchable actors around.

Erika Schindele and Brad Culver in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid TalesVincent Olivieri’s sound design mixes music and actors perfectly, ensuring we don’t miss a word (the melodies of the tunes are all in the public domain); Susan Gratch’s set consists of roll-on houses and furniture in front of colorful backdrops, which are exquisitely and fancifully lit by Jeremy Pivnick and Jaymi Lee Smith. But the star of the show that eclipses all else is Ann Closs-Farley and her über-imaginative costume design, which brings all manner of beast and human to vivid life.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Amanda Pajer and Matt McGrath in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

Given the structural narrative of The Stinky Cheese Man, this could have been a stink bomb, but in Kubzansky’s hands, Stinky is da bomb.

Larry Bates, Tracey A. Leigh and Brad Culver in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Larry Bates, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Erika Schindele and Tracey A. Leigh in South Coast Repertory's Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on June 8, 2014
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.SCR.org

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