Theater review

Review: 'Jack and the Wonder Beans' does right by James Still, Appalachia and kids

Contributing Culture WriterMarch 21, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    'Jack and the Wonder Beans'

    What: Lexington Children's Theatre's production of Larry Snipes's play based on the book by former Kentucky poet laureate James Still. Recommended for kindergarten-age and older.

    When: 2 and 7 p.m. March 22; and 2 p.m. March 23.

    Where: LCT, 418 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $15 adults, $13 children. Available at (859) 254-4546 or LCTonstage.org.

The Lexington Children's Theatre's programming often features stories about kids and families around the world. With its latest production, Jack and the Wonder Beans, the story takes place much closer to home: in James Still's Appalachian Kentucky.

Larry Snipes adapted the tall tale from the book by Still. He also directs, reflecting in his director's notes about his personal experiences with Still in the early 1990s. He calls Still "truly an inspiration."

A former state poet laureate from Eastern Kentucky, Still died in 2001, but seeing his stories continue to delight children during a school-group performance of the show on Thursday was heartening.

Snipes' latest retelling of Still's book is a fun, entertaining romp through folklore that leans heavily on audience participation and flexible actors who not only act but must ad hoc direct a spate of young volunteers chosen to participate on the spot.

So-called "Jack tales" have Old World origins, but Appalachians modified the tales to suit their own culture. The results are many wonderfully colorful stories that have endured through the ages.

As a native of Appalachia, I listened to the small ensemble's pronunciation of Still's dialect with a sharp ear and was grateful to hear that each actor found a way to be comfortable, clear and animated with the language without forcing a fake mountain accent.

Michael Whitten is full of the right mix of enthusiasm, mischief and good intentions to bring Jack to life. He expertly plays each physical gag for maximum laughs and keeps the pace moving forward with zest. It's safe to bet that Whitten, who has been an LCT cast member for five years, knows how to entertain children in his sleep.

Whitten is joined by Marcy Thornsberry and Christopher Freeman, who take turns playing a variety of characters, including the giants who live above the beanstalk. Bri Dankers is an acoustic guitar-wielding storyteller.

Thornsberry and Freeman create crisply entertaining characters, including the Chicken Lady and the Gypsy, and as the High Tall Giants, their larger-than-life characterizations are humorous with just the right touch of fear in them. After all, they might eat you. Eric Abele's puppetry-inspired large head pieces work wonders here and add to the otherworldliness of the land above the beanstalk.

Danker's strumming of bluegrass-inspired tunes including Shady Grove, with altered lyrics aiding the storytelling, warmly emphasizes Jack's cultural background while keeping the tale's tempo moving.

Acting and design elements are strong in this production, but the highlight really is its bold embrace of audience participation.

LCT is certainly no stranger to getting kids clapping and hollering from their seats, but this show has the most opportunities to really "play" together than any show I've seen there. Not only are children encouraged to play different characters from their seats, creating the wind, flowers and other natural phenomenon with their arms, but several are selected from the audience, costumed and given easy lines to say.

Watching a little girl beam as she put on a cow costume and watching the cast prompt her to say "Moo!" each time they said "cow" was warmly entertaining. Several other children got the chance to come onstage during the school performance I watched. The actors did a terrific job keeping the story unfolding and adjusting to the onstage children's needs.

In that way, no two shows will be the same.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.

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