November 9, 2006

 Sideways Stories from the Wayside School

Louis Sachar's silly Wayside School stories have long been among my family's favorites. So we were excited to see how the folks at Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences would recreate the whimsy and magic of the books onstage. Sadly, they couldn't.

Rather, they gave us an evil, creepy, bizarre version of what should be a fun, light-hearted kids' story.

To be fair, we liked a lot of what we saw. The actors were terrific. The set was fun and whimsical, just as Sachar might have envisioned it. And many of the words were drawn straight from his stories. Without these big plusses, my family - my husband and two children Evan, 12, and Tess, 10 - would have given the show a lower grade. My children are both long-time Sachar fans.

The problem with this show was in the choice to make the nasty Mrs. Gorf into an evil, cackling monster of a teacher. And to end the show, it didn't help that the substitute teacher, Mr. Gorf, was equally as evil as his mother.

True, those situations are drawn from the books, but Sachar's version is silly and seemingly less threatening. In the Chicago Playworks' version, they are evil and mean-spirited.

There is a reason this play is recommended for kids ages 8 and up. The younger children in the audience were frightened and worried by the evil characters. But, if you do decide to go, please note that the seating is general admission. So if you want to be close enough for the kids to see, you'll want to arrive early. And we found parking for just $6.25 in the indoor garage at the northwest corner of Wabash and Balboa avenues. Cindy Richards

Sideways Stories from Wayside School runs on Saturdays 2 p.m.,  (no show Nov. 25), 10 a.m., Tuesday and 10 a.m., Thursday (no show Nov. 23) through Dec. 2006. DePaul University's Merle Reskin Theater, 60 E. Balbo Ave., Chicago. $8. Kids ages 8 and up. (312) 325-7900.


  Nothing brings home the magic of Christmas and warms the heart like a boy-loves-dog, dog-defies-odds movie.

In this case, the dog is Lassie, the world's favorite dog hero, based on Eric Knight's best-selling book, "Lassie Come Home." She returns in a heartwarming story set on the eve of World War II. As the Yorkshire mine closes and Dad loses his job, the Carracloughs fear hard times and are forced to sell Lassie to the Duke of Rudling.

Not to be penned up, Lassie escapes again and again to return to her family and the boy she so loves. But when the Duke takes his charming, precocious granddaughter and Lassie 500 miles away to his castle in northern Scotland, what's a smart dog to do? Engineer a clever escape. Lassie battles the elements (with a visit to Loch Ness and a possible sighting of the famed monster) and man's cruelty to make it back home by Christmas, where her family finds her lying outside their church, covered in snow and barely breathing.

The scenery is fabulous, the story simple and heartwarming. But the acting is flat, despite a cast that includes Peter O'Toole, and the story line drags a bit. Tissues likely won't be needed for this movie, unlike the TV series many parents may remember, but the message is sweet and the ending is happy. Tamara L. O'Shaughnessy   "Lassie," available through Genius Products Inc., comes to DVD on Nov. 14, with a $28.95 suggested retail price. The DVD is full of bonus features, including animal auditions, a featurette and an Animal Planet at the Movies "Lassie" special.

 Just Out of Reach Light Extension for Kids

This 12-inch extension for standard light switches is marketed to families with young children. There are three separate pieces: a rubber cover the size and shape of a large vitamin, a 12-inch plastic rod, and a flimsy decorative toggle. There are similar products on the market that screw-mount to existing switch plates, however this product's selling point of hardware-free installation is also its major downfall. Sure, it's a snap to install, but also to remove and dismantle in a matter of seconds.

The Web site states, "Finally a product that helps my child turn the lights on, and he doesn't have to climb to reach the light switch. No climbing, no falling, no crashes..." However, this product is not safe for families with young children due to the potential for choking on the rubber cover.

My 4-year-old, Simon, initially was impressed. "It helps me turn off the light better. Standing on my tiptoes hurts my legs. I like this better." Then, he discovered that he could do the same thing with the hose extension from the vacuum cleaner and lost interest. Until he noticed that the three pieces snap apart and the rod could be turned into a sword with one sharp, pointed end. Ouch. The cover was now a half-inch rubber choking hazard. Total time intact: Less than two hours in the home of my 4- and 6-year-olds. 

A light switch extension has the potential to be an aid to independence for small children or persons in wheelchairs, but I would NOT recommend this particular product due to its design flaws and safety risks. Plus, at $10.95 a pop, it is profoundly overpriced for its level of quality. My son, Simon, gave this product a "B-," because he really likes swords. Susie Donohue, Oak Park

Just Out of Reach Light Extension for Kids, $10.95 for one, two for $19.95;


 Polly Pocket comes to life



What can capture little girls' attention better than a cool amusement park and unlimited shopping, mixed with a pretty good story and some upbeat music? That's the recipe in Polly Pocket's first full-length film, "PollyWorld."


The new DVD, due for release Tuesday, is an attention holder if Zoe, 4, and Arlee, 7, are any indication. They said they liked the story about Polly and her friends trying to raise money for charity, competing with classmates on their favorite reality show at Polly's dad's huge amusement park, PollyWorld. They especially liked the music by Polly's band, Polly and the Pockets.


The girls love to play with the miniature doll and her friends, so they already fell into the retail hype of wanting the PollyWorld playset. This DVD just made them want it even more.


But it is a story even moms and dads can enjoy with a few good lessons about friendship, tackling new challenges despite fear of looking stupid and enjoying being a kid. One of these days, however, I wish movie makers could get away from the standard scheming wannabe stepmom trying to send the kid to boarding school to get her out of the picture. Polly's dad, you'll learn, has a surprise-he's engaged.


Right from the beginning you know the stepmom isn't in the picture for love when she pairs up with Polly's scheming jealous classmate, Beth, to win everything. Still, Polly gets credit for trying to get to know her stepmom. Even when she gets evidence of her future stepmom's scheming, Polly destroys it because she sees her dad is in love.

Tamara L. O'Shaughnessy


"PollyWorld" (Universal Studios Home Entertainment) will be released Tuesday on DVD. Suggested retail price, $19.98. The bonus features offer interactive games and activities.


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