Childhood is a complicated time, but it’s also when fantastical whimsy and utter honesty can co-exist in equal amounts. Manual Cinema not only respects this aspect of youth, but honors it fully with their beautiful production of Magic City at Chicago Children’s Theatre.
If you go
Runs through February 19, 2017
The Station, 100 S. Racine Ave., Chicago
(runs approx. 71 minutes)
How best to tell the story of 9- (almost 10-) year-old Philomena, who cheerfully builds homes and villages out of found materials with her beloved older sister/guardian; that is, of course, until the day that everything changes? The folks of Chicago’s Manual Cinema believe it’s by layering art forms; much like Philomena creates her cities out of boxes and books, this theater company utilizes shadow puppetry, miniature toy theater and highly stylized projections alongside traditional acting. The show also makes exceptional use of onstage musicians and a narrator (the incredible team of Ben Kauffman, Kyle Vegter and Maren Celest). Every ounce of it works, and seamlessly, at that.
Adapted from Edith Nesbit’s 1910 novel “The Magic City,” the tale has been updated to appeal to the urban dwelling kiddo, not to mention the extraordinarily common (and occasionally fraught) shift to a blended family. And while this show (conceived by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman) is wholly geared towards the tiniest of theatergoers, it’s impossible not to be charmed by this deeply moving and thoroughly funny production. (A surefire way to know you’re identifying more with the grownups in the show than the children? You laugh really hard at the multiple “Murder: She Wrote” and Patrick Swayze references.)
The excellent space plays a large part in this gorgeous show, and Magic City marks CCT’s inaugural production at the sparkling new West Loop venue The Station, well worth a visit; even if only to hear your kids speculate about whether or not their seats would’ve originally been inside an actual jail cell. (Hint: They probably would.)
The actors are an impressive and athletic bunch, sprinting between performing tiny scenes for the projectors, racing to pantomime a scene in silhouette, and then jumping back to manipulate puppets for yet another part of the story. Sarah Fornace as Philomena is perfection as the girl who wonders why things can’t just go on being wonderful, and Julia Miller’s Helen is the older sis any creative kid could want (even if she does have the bad habit of inviting her future husband into the world solely crafted for and by Helen and Philomena). Linsey Falls plays the imminent stepdad Brandon with an eager energy that any future step kid can recognize a mile away, and he also has a turn as another relative in a deeply funny bit concerning a television. However, the role that really tugged at my emotions was that of Jeffrey Paschal’s wholly sympathetic Lucas, whose story arc revealed a kid every bit as shaken by change as Philomena herself.
Magic City is a carefully curated homage to childhood that will break your heart and then rebuild it, leaving behind–as we’re told–“a little zigzag of wisdom.”
And you, like Philomena, will ultimately be the better for it.