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On November 1, Children's Theatre of Charlotte opened the energetic musical The Invisible Boy at the Wells Fargo Playhouse at ImaginOn. CTC commissioned this piece as part of their Kindness Project, a series that features new plays with kindness as the central theme.
The Invisible Boy is based on a children's book by Trudy Ludwig, with illustrations by Patrice Barton. The book was adapted into a musical by Christopher Parks, with music by Josh Totora. The Invisible Boy focuses on an elementary school class and a kid named Brian (played by Adrian Thornburg) who never gets picked for kickball at recess, eats lunch alone, and is even sometimes forgotten by his teacher. He feels invisible. One day, when a new kid, Justin (Justen Chu), comes to class, things change. Eventually the two become friends, and Brian no longer feels invisible in class.
As is usual at CTC, the production features a great set, designed by Hannah Crowell, with a big projector screen in the background made out of notebook paper. Illustrations from the book, among other images, are projected on the screen. Each of the seven cast members also wears bright and colorful costumes, designed by Kahei Shum McRae, which further enhance the visual appeal.
Music is provided by a four-member rhythm section who play on raised platforms on stage, sometimes interacting with the cast. (Music direction is by Jessica Borgnis.) Though always precise and on cue, the instrumentalists sometimes overpowered the singers, especially soloists. In fact, everything (including the singers) is miked and, in general, could have stood to be turned down, especially for such an intimate space. That being said, all cast members are good singers, and every song is upbeat and lively. A singing standout is Dani Burke, who played the teacher Mrs. Carlotti.
Overall, the production is visually and audibly appealing and well executed. It seemed, however, that the theme was misplaced. The central theme of the book appears not to be kindness but rather courage and self-confidence. In an effort to adapt the book to the Kindness Project, the musical added songs and lines that discussed kindness, though kindness is not strongly demonstrated through action, because it is not really central to the plot. The main action of the play is describing a different theme entirely. For a children’s play it would seem actions might speak more loudly than words. Providing an opportunity for young audience members to observe a lesson in kindness, in addition to hearing about one, would make an even greater impact.
Brian is a nervous, shy kid who gets left out and forgotten, mainly because he never says anything. The closest the play gets to demonstrating an act of kindness comes not to Brian, but from Brian, when he decides to take initiative. When Justin is picked on by his fellow classmates, Brian writes Justin a note saying that he thought that Justin's funny-sounding meal, which was mocked by other kids, sounded good. This was the main act of kindness, though it was by no means a climax or turning point. Brian's luck changes not when he is shown an act of kindness, but only when he takes action for himself. Towards the end, the kids are put into groups for a project and Brian approaches Justin to be partners. Justin already has a partner who asserts her role and rejects Brian, at first. However, Justin says that they should make themselves a group of three, and all parties accept. This is the turning point, because from here, Brian has now made friends, has people to sit with at lunch, is "seen." This climax didn't really demonstrate a go-out-of-your-way-to-be-nice act of kindness, though. This was simply Brian taking initiative to make friends, because pretty much as soon as he approaches other students, they accept him. It appears that the central lesson of the book is not that a small act of kindness can change someone's life, but instead it is important to take initiative in your own life. Not a bad lesson, just different.
Regardless of thematic focus, The Invisible Boy is entertaining, the cast is full of energy, and the set and costumes are bright and visually appealing. The show continues through Sunday, November 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.