Thumbelina: The Story of a Brave Little Girl
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 12, 2008
Elephant Ensemble Theater brings free theatre to children in New York City hospitals, but their current adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fable, Thumbelina: The Story of A Brave Little Girl, can be caught by children of all ages as part of the FringeJR series at this year's festival. And it should—everybody has a good time in this little audience participatory nugget. In fact, I was far and away the youngest child in the audience at Tuesday afternoon's show, and Reagan was president when I was last able to count my age on two hands. Kudos to the cast for their determination to keep the audience young that afternoon by insisting on audience participation anyway—Christine Seisler, the managing director of the company playing Mama and the narrator, led most of this, and she got us tired New Yorkers to scream "Quiet Down!!" at creepy-crawly noisemakers in the swamp, and clap for Thumbelina's dance until a super-giant French spider was outwitted. It was an adorable and completely heroic achievement on her part.
Thumbelina is a simple tale, even by children's theatre standards, but it's a winner in the hands of this ensemble. The eponymous heroine (Mollie Lohinski), the tiny adopted daughter of Mama, takes a rest one day on a leaf able to hold her daintiness quite comfortably. She is suddenly kidnapped by the hilarious Froggy Mom, who sounds like a Brooklyn yenta (Cheri Haller), for marriage to her dimwitted son Frog Boy (the rubber-faced, delightfully goofy Christopher Van Jura), and her escape sets her on an intrepid journey through a woods full of peril and new friends who help her find her home and Mama's arms again.
The petite Lohinski is a plucky jewel as Thumbelina, a little heroine who truly can inspire children in all the best ways. She never loses hope or belief that anything is possible, and never believes naysayers who try to keep her down because she is smaller and younger. At the same time, there is a guitar-carrying, Liverpool-accented beetle (Haller again) who gives her the play's wise, winking little theme in the woods: "We get by with a little help from our friends." Even Thumbelina can't do it alone; she gets much interaction from the audience when she asks for it, and also from various creatures played with creative flair by Haller and Van Jura, who each man a coat stand upstage when they are not in the action, containing their cute, simple costume elements.
Kids will adore Haller and Van Jura's wild menagerie of beasts and the warm maternalism of Seisler's Mama, and will want to be BFFs with Lohinski as Thumbelina. Director/writer Liza Lentini has crafted a production of Andersen's tale that engages youngsters without condescension, and it's a great, humorous story about staying positive and believing in yourself—good advice at any age.