nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 2, 2010
I don't often see theatre intended for very young children, but I wanted to be sure to see Stanley's Party at Manhattan Children's Theatre because it's the work of one of my favorite young composer/lyricists, Seth Bisen-Hersh. This 45-minute musical, which has a book by Caroline Cala, is based on two pre-school picture books, Stanley's Party and Stanley's Wild Ride, by Linda Bailey and Bill Slavin. It's a lovable, quick-moving romp that kept the very small kids in the theatre attentive and involved throughout, yet offers enough sophistication and variety to keep their accompanying grown-ups diverted as well.
The story revolves around Stanley, a likable dog who dutifully spends his days fenced in within his yard. One day, a nosy bird flies over and suggests to Stanley that he's missing out on an exciting world beyond the fence. Stanley digs a hole and escapes, and soon rounds up his neighbor dogs—Alice, who has a bit of a crush on him; Nutsy, who is small and nervous; Gassy Jack, an indoor pet; and handsome but not so bright Elwood—to join him on a wild ride involving roller skates, wagons, tricycles, and other potentially dangerous items.
Stanley's disappearance from the yard causes him to be banished to the house. Bored, he decides to throw a party—again encouraged by that pesky bird!—and the gang comes over and, predictably, tears up the house. Will Stanley be punished still further, or will his "people" realize they need to give him more love and attention?
The story unfolds speedily and mostly to the bright and chipper music of Bisen-Hersh. There are lots of bouncy songs and plenty of fun dances (choreography is by Erin Porvaznika). Among the highlights: the show-stopping title tune, which features more complex harmonies than you'd expect to find in a kids' musical, and "Do the Doggy Dance," a high-energy number that the littlest members of the audience seemed to get a big kick out of.
Cala's book doesn't talk down to its audience, but I wasn't certain if the mini-lessons it seems to be teaching really got through to the crowd. The anthropomorphization of the dog characters is a little unsteady—sometimes Stanley and his pals act like dogs, while other times they act like young children (and other times they act like teenagers); this can be a bit confusing. (I'm not sure if the source material shares this issue or not.)
That said, the overall messages of the show seem to be positive ones: we shouldn't be afraid of adventure and change, and we should never take the ones we love for granted.
Director Bruce Merrill does a terrific job with the piece, and the five delightful cast members bring the dogs to life with excellent energy—Barry Shafrin (Stanley), Crystal Davidson (Alice), Ryan Makely (Elwood), Kyra Bromberg (Nutsy), and Derek Rommel (Gassy Jack). A colorful and inventive set is provided by Cully Long; the arrival of the comfy talking couch in the second part of the play elicited a surprise comment from one of the youngest audience members. Clever doggie costumes are by Nora Munde Gustuson.