This production adheres mostly to Juster’s original. Milo, a boy who does nothing and is bored by everything, finds a singing tollbooth (with a recitative baritone voice) in his room one afternoon. After dropping in the token, he is given a car, a map, and access to the Land of Wisdom, where words and numbers are held in high esteem, but nothing makes sense because the two feuding rulers, King Azaz the Unabridged of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolish, have banished their twin sisters, Rhyme and Reason, from the land. Milo decides to undertake the perilous quest through the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue Rhyme and Reason. In an Ozian turn, he meets all sorts of punny (not puny) personalities along the way and has to outwit the demons (rather than winged monkeys) that are bent on sabotaging him through trivium, insincerity, and senses taking.
The Phantom Tollbooth’s charm lies in Juster’s clever puns, turn of phrase, oddly philosophical questions, and startling moments of truth. While the songs weren’t that memorable, the constant wordplay, creative sets, and strong performances compensated for the mediocre score. Milo (the vocally strong Jeffrey Sewell, who holds his own in the Act 1 closer, a trio) was a great everyman character, the kids in the audience adored the dogged doggy-ness of Tock the Watchdog (Michael Wood), and Azaz and the Mathemagician were unabashedly campy–in a good way. Smart performances from secondary characters, like the redundant Duke of Definition, Minister of Meaning, Count of Connotation, and the Undersecretary of Understanding, the wishy-washy Whether Man, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord and his ditzy Decibelles rounded out the cast.
But for me, t’was the demons who gave the standout performance. In spite of their ridiculous dust mite costumes, they were surprisingly scary. I don’t know what the kids thought, but every time the demons appeared to waylay Milo, my friend would whisper, “it’s like The Screwtape Letters! For kids!” So true. When we first become aware of the demons who have been lurking unseen in Milo’s room, they utter this sinister line: We’ve known Milo a long time. And by the way, we know most of you, too!
Altogether, the Wheelock Family Theatre’s The Phantom Tollbooth is an evening of fun theatre with a take-home message that resonates. While my friend and I still prefer the movie version and the book to the musical, respectively, in any medium, this Tollbooth accomplishes what it sets out to do: drives away the doldrums, snaps us out of our tedium, and engages us to wonder, think, and do.