“The Stinky Cheese Man” is incredibly funny theatre for smart kids and stressed out parents

All photos ©Tamara Hansen 2014

“The Stinky Cheese Man” turns fairy tales upside down and inside out
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Larry Murray: Tailor-made for an elementary schoolchild’s sense of humor, The Stinky Cheese Man is likely to be just as much fun for any adult who has not lost touch with his inner child. Mine had been sleeping for a very, very long time, and was reawakened by seeing this delightful show at the Dorset Theatre Festival.

Gail M. Burns: I know you were thinking I was a losing it when I suggested we drive to Dorset to see a children’s theatre production, but the chance to see many of the talented college students (and some recent grads- congrats!) who we had seen in Spring Awakening last month at The Theatre Institute at Sage (TIS) convinced you I hadn’t gone completely around the bend.

Larry: They are doing a lot of things right at the Sage Colleges and TIS, and presenting this stage adaptation of Jon Scieszka’s Caldecott Honor Book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (stoopid) Tales (1992) is one of them. Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca, we are told) has turned a batch of familiar fairy tales into “Little Red Running Shorts” and “The Princess and the Bowling Ball” filled with subversive shots across the bow of tradition. Kids today are a lot smarter than they were a hundred years ago, but they’re used to rapid fire entertainment. The Stinky Cheese Man requires the young ones to pay attention, and to be familiar with real books (hooray for that!) since the humor is in all kinds of places, including the table of contents falling from the sky on poor, unsuspecting Chicken Little, played by the delightfully plucky Katie Pedro.

Gail: Plucky, lucky, clucky, ducky – there’s some fowl humor going on here…Cow patty! Excuse me, I have no idea where that came from, although a very large one does fall from the flies in the course of the mayhem. And then everyone sings a song about it – a song about a giant cow patty – which is somehow fitting in the Green Mountain state, home to more cows than humans once upon a time.

On a more serious note, let’s talk about the singing. It was wonderful! We knew these young performers could sing, but it was even better hearing them a cappella harmonizing. Their vocal dynamics were superior.

Larry: This ensemble is chock-full of promising actors. Keep an eye on the diminutive Charlie Barnett, IV. He reminds me of the long-ago Ed Wynn who was famous for his perfect fool character, but went on to be a master of dramatic roles too. Barnett stood out in a minor role Spring Awakening. Here all the actors dig deep to portray their outlandish characters, and as “Jack, the narrator” and later, as the Tortoise, he was absolutely fearless. I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word inhibition.

Gail: I have never seen someone who could stand on the very, very tips of their toes, as Barnett does, without the aid of toe-shoes, although who knows what apparatus he had concealed in his colorful Keds. The costumes by Lynne Roblin were imaginative and flexible, each layered on top on a basic outfit for each performer, in a show where modesty and mobility are essential.

Larry: If Charlie Barnett was diminutive, it was Lucas Phayre-Gonzales who stood tall in various incarnations of “trust me” Foxy Loxy, and a truly Ugly Duck which tested his mettle as an improvisational actor, and then shrank down to dwarf stature as Rumpelstiltskin, where he worked closely with Annaleigh Lester’s Cinderumpelstiltskin. Lester is a trouper, too, even though consigned to being Princess #2, Ducky Lucky, and a Cow Butt (not a Cow Patty), she has a fire in her belly to be #1 someday, and made these roles shine, giving them her all.

Gail: This is truly an ensemble piece for these nine performers, and there in not a rotten apple in the bunch – although there is a Frog and the Surgeon General, and, of course a Stinky Cheese Man. (I had a discussion with my son the Cheesemonger about exactly why some cheeses stink and the answer is way too boring and scientific to repeat here.) But Nick Martiniano only stank in the olfactory sense in the title role while executing some very fancy footwork. Martiniano also turned a neat tail-feather as Cocky Locky and a grossly over-educated Owl, before being nailed by the aforementioned…Cow Patty!

Amelia Morgan was egregiously overlooked (of course) as the Little Red Hen before turning her nose up, literally, as Cinderella’s Stepmother and that helicopter parent of a Queen who insists that all of her son’s prospective wives pass the Pea Test. Eddie Knight wore many hats, a fascinator, and a crown, as the King (spouse of aforementioned Queen), the Frog who isn’t a prince but just likes to kiss beautiful princesses, the Little Old Man whose wife concocts the Stinky Cheese Man, and the head of a Cow. He also took a turn in drag as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, proving that no one of any gender looks good with a full tutu pulled up under their armpits. But I enjoyed him most as the two gentlemen out to spoil all the fun – the Surgeon General who fears the show is very, very dangerous to the audience’s health, and the Legal Guy, without whose lengthy disclaimer the performance cannot conclude. And Madeleine Morrell brought a flounce of femininity to her roles as Goosey Loosey, Princess #1, and the Little Old Lady whose life is SO lonely she needs to concoct…well, you know who!

Larry: There’s audience participation, too and you know how children love to be called on to go up on stage, and at the performance we saw, there were quite a few teen and older volunteers as well, all of them game for their roles in telling these fractured fairy tales. There is no credit given in the program for the creative talent who adapted the book for the stage, and wrote the delightful lyrics to classical tunes that opened and closed the show. The simple traveling set by Duncan Morrison – mostly colorful t-shirts on rolling boards – created the perfect ambiance.

Gail: I loved those “t-shirts.” And although I knew they were merely t-shirt shaped cut-outs, I adored the sense of fun, comfort, and ease the sight of them established before the show even began.

Larry: Coming up with theatre that is as entertaining for adults as for children is no easy trick, is it Gail? And wreaking havoc on those age old tales is the sort of rebellion I find totally entertaining. I am so glad we made the trek to Dorset, and while the sun was shining gloriously outside and the quarry swimming hole was calling, inside on stage it was even brighter, thanks to this sunny and upbeat show which I hope is just the first of many collaborations between Sage College and the Dorset Theatre Festival.

Gail: But as the cast assured us, it didn’t go on for ever and ever, just one happy hour, leaving plenty of time for summer fun in the sun. As we exited the playhouse someone began playing some hymns on the carillon at a local church, making the hills truly alive with the sound of music.

Larry: We had a chance to talk with artistic director Dina Janis both before and after the show. She said: “Family friendly shows are a big favorite at the Festival, because they allow us to really connect with our community. We believe that bringing children and families into the theatre is one of the most important ways to keep the theatre alive and vital.”

What is impressive about this show is how very smart it is, even children who are “over” Grimm’s Fairy Tales will love how they are turned into satire and silly humor in double doses – the kids will love the energy, the parents the bonus layer of subtlety in the carefully constructed children’s humor.

Gail: But The Stinky Cheese Man has only two shows remaining on June 20, so hurry and get tickets if you want your chance to be assaulted by silliness in the beautiful hills of Vermont.

Dorset Theatre Festival presents The Stinky Cheese Man, performed by The Theatre Institute at Sage. Director – Michael Musial; Costume Design – Lynne Roblin; Set Design – Duncan Morrison; Stage Manager – Samantha Tirrell; Assistant Stage Manager – Bailey Willis, Teresa Monahan; Dressers – Taylor Hoffman, Lorenz Ray.
Cast: Foxy Loxy/Ugly Duck/Wolf/Rumpelstiltskin/Fox – Lucas Phayre-Gonzales; Ducky Lucky/Princess #2/Cinderumpelstiltskin/Cow Butt – Annaleigh Lester; Giant – Aaron Setlow; Red Hen/Queen/Stepmother – Amelia Morgan; Jack/Tortoise – Charlie Barnett, IV; Surgeon General/King/Frog/Stepsister #2/Little Old Man/Cow Head/Legal Guy – Eddie Knight; Goosey Loosey/Princess #1/Little Old Lady – Madeleine Morrell; Cow Patty Boy/Cocky Locky/Prince/Stepsister #/Owl/Stinky – Nick Martiniano; Chicken Little/Red/Rabbit – Katie Pedro. One hour with no intermission. June 13 and June 20, 2015 at the Dorset Theatre Festival, Dorset, VT. DorsetTheatreFestival.org (802) 867-2223.

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