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'Giant' speaks to kids, whether young, old

By Chris Jones
Tribune Critic, Chicago Tribune
February 5, 2008

As any self-respecting 4-year-old will confirm, irreverence is a crucial quality in a children's show. That's the problem with those touring live spectacles that hawk familiar characters on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel or Sprout. They have to protect the brand. Snarkiness is bad for concession sales.

But folk singer Michael Smith, who anchors the Chicago Children's Theatre's droll little all-ages musical version of "The Selfish Giant," serves no external corporate beasts.

The basic plot device of this smart and appealing show, based on the redemptive story by Oscar Wilde, couldn't be simpler. Giant, a selfish dude, bans kids from his garden. Birds leave. Bees follow. Garden dies. Giant, now miserable, repents. Kids return. Spring blooms. Giant, less selfish, can finally take his eternal rest.

But Smith's laconic lyrics, which include references to everything from Wilmette to Islamabad to airport delays at O'Hare International Airport, recall Roald Dahl in their sardonic wit and their refusal to sugarcoat the nasty behavior of giants, especially when selfish. Smith's flat, beady-eyed stage persona suggests a slightly out-of-whack uncle, but he's instantly recognizable as being on the side of a kid. He starts off the show by singing about how, when you're a kid, everyone's a giant. (I recall that from my earliest nightmares; although, to tell the truth, giants never did abate as much I would have liked).

"So what's a little kid to do?" Smith sings, as lots of tiny heads nod along empathetically. "Finally!" those heads seem to say. "Giants everywhere! Somebody gets it!"

As you listen to Smith you watch the visuals of Blair Thomas, whose career trajectory has not run smooth but always has been, for me, Chicago's premier visual-theater artist. Thomas' work is always best in an intimate setting like a side room at the Field Museum. And here, with the help of other designers, he creates a slew of mournful, whimsical puppets, tricks, animals and handmade motifs that appear from trunks, pages, hats, the sky. And, yep, the selfish giant looks selfish and giant.

Smith and Thomas recently collaborated on "The Snow Queen" for Victory Gardens. Although shorter and simpler, I find "The Selfish Giant" a more aesthetically pleasing work with a stronger sense of visual unity and a far deeper emotional pull.

There is a fixable lull just before the end and the piece could use a little more interactivity. But whatever your age, I would defy you not to be pulled in here by the ramifications of selfishness.

"Share?" sings Smith, wickedly. "Who he?"

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