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Participants in Raleigh Little Theatre's Teens on Stage summer program will perform Susan Nanus' 1977 stage adaptation of Norton Juster's immensely popular 1961 children's book The Phantom Tollbooth, under the direction of Chris Beaulieu, July 15-25 in its Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. RLT's intensive five-week Teens on Stage program combines acting and movement classes with the opportunity to perform in a full-scale production.
According to preshow publicity, Norton Juster's classic illustrated children's book is "[s]tandard reading for Wake County Public School System sixth graders[; and] this witty tale, roiling with irony and sophisticated word play, has been a favorite with both children and their parents since it was first published in 1961. An architect by trade, Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth on a lark after becoming bored with a project he had agreed to do for the Ford Foundation. As luck would have it, Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and playwright, was Juster's neighbor at the time. Juster enlisted Feiffer to illustrate his book and the cartoons have been an integral part of the novel ever since."
RLT invites Triangle theatergoers to "[t]ake a ride this summer with a bored young man named Milo as he drives through a mysterious toy tollbooth and into the fantastical kingdoms of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. Caught in a literal war over words and numbers, Milo ends up on a quest to rescue two Princesses (Rhyme and Reason) and restore peace (and sanity) to their lands.
RLT guest director Chris Beaulieu recalls, "When I was asked to direct Phantom Tollbooth last December, I immediately went out to find the original book. It was my first time reading it, and I found it to be a great children's story."
Beaulieu adds, "Like many good children's stories, I love the complete wackiness inherent in the storytelling. You should be able to get lost in a good fantasy and that's exactly what happened to me when I read Tollbooth. It's always a challenge to do justice to this genre without talking down to the kids."
Chris Beaulieu says, "The Phantom Tollbooth is about a boy, Milo (Josh Silver), who doesn't value his time and tends to get bored easily. One day, a [toy] tollbooth arrives as a mysterious present. [His decision] to venture through the tollbooth... begins a wild, exciting journey to save Princesses Rhyme and Reason (Arielle Rassel and Tara Pozo) from the Castle-in-the-Air.
"Every hero needs help," Beaulieu says, "and Milo finds support from two new friends, Tock (Molly Davis) and Humbug (Faegan O'Day Young). During his journey, Milo learns the importance of letters, numbers, word play, and logic — and how to use them to make the most out of time. As the story shows us, 'Time is important, but it's what you do with it that makes it so.'
Staging a full-scale production with teenaged acting students playing all the roles presents special challenges for director Chris Beaulieu. "The schedule for Teens on Stage is surely the biggest obstacle for everyone involved," Beaulieu says. "In order to use this limited time wisely (only three weeks of rehearsal/classes), there has to be a clear vision from the entire staff before the camp begins.
"For the kids," Beaulieu says, "I believe their biggest challenge is to realize the play is bigger than any one actor or part. They have certainly risen to the occasion, creating a strong ensemble.
Besides director Chris Beaulieu, the RLT production team for The Phantom Tollbooth includes assistant directors Anna Gettles and Caitlyn Wells, choreographer Jess Pillmore, set designer John Andrews, lighting designer Andy Parks, costume designer Sue Brace, and sound designer Jess Pillmore.
"The production team has truly created a fantastic, zany world filled with brilliant colors, sounds, and textures," claims Chris Beaulieu. "The set, sound, lights, and costumes bring to life a world of wonder, joy, fear, and hope, that will awaken not only Milo's spirit but the audience's as well."
Beaulieu adds, "I have never seen a group of students work harder within such limited time. They have put together a truly wonderful production. I am overwhelmingly proud of each one of them. They should be proud of themselves. Hats off!"
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Phantom Tollbooth Thursday-Friday, July 15-16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, July 17-18, at 1 and 5 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday, July 20-22, at 10 a.m.; Friday, July 23, at 1 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 24, at 1 and 5 p.m.; and Sunday, July 25, at 1 p.m. in its Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 ($8 students). 919/821-3111. Note: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and there are assistive listening devices available for all shows. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/phantom.htm.