Alexander the Great
A fuddy-duddy teacher tells the title character of the Coterie Theatre’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that his art assignment shows “much too much imagination”; a similar charge could be applied to the imaginative crew behind the show — except that, in this case, the imagination is not too much but exceedingly right. It masterfully erases any age restrictions from a musical that, only because it has to, recommends audiences ages five and up. Whether you’re four or 44, the show is a great big confection from start to finish.
Judith Viorst adapted the book and lyrics from her Alexander stories, and Shelly Markham composed the winsome music, a melange of Broadway pop with light jazz and subtle reggae overtones. Musical director Molly Jessup and choreographer Missy Koonce add their unique sprinkles on top, and the production rolls at you like a seductive dessert cart — each sweet is more tempting than the last.
Michael Andrew Smith is winningly (but never cloyingly) childlike as Alexander, who is having one of those terrible, horrible days. It begins at sunrise with a wad of gum that, sometime the night before, worked its way from his mandibles to his follicles. From there, the day goes on not like a seesaw but rather an ever-descending slide. At breakfast, while his brothers, Paul (Dean Kelley) and Nick (Raffeal A. Sears), pull exciting toys from their boxes of colorful cereal brands, such as Yum-Yum Yummies, Alexander’s no-fat, high-fiber generic brand is, alas, packaged with only cereal. (That the designers would be so conscientious as to build cereal boxes that parallel these three characters is a testament to the show’s incessant creativity.)
At school, Mrs. Dickens (Charles Fugate, whose dress is padded with the foam rubber buttocks the Coterie used in The Seven Dwarfs some years back) is orchestrating a talent show. Alexander’s classmate, Audrey (the versatile Amy Morgan), is a Star Search nightmare — the meek ventriloquist who needs to be prodded to speak above a whisper. Another peer, Becky (Koonce, who also plays Mother), begins a lullaby about a baby sister that accelerates into something off of a Dead Kennedys record. Alexander, on the other hand, becomes one of those sad cases of the musically enthusiastic with absolutely no talent and is swiftly instructed to zip it up.
The aforementioned art assignment becomes Alexander’s latest humiliation. While the other kids produce competent but wholly unspectacular boats and such, our hero turns in something white on white and explains it without a whiff of irony. Mrs. Dickens does what every teacher and parent is told not to do — she pans his work, perhaps aborting an entire career as the hottest new minimalist. From there, it’s off to the dentist (Fugate again, using a terrifying dentist chair equipped with a buzz saw blade, a syringe and a hammer), where, of course, Nick and Paul are perfect, cavity-free Crest kids, and Alexander has a hole where a hole ought not to be.
“Hot, Hot, Hot, Hot Shoes” seems to be the title of the next number, set at a shoe superstore where nothing Alexander wants is in stock. He gets white low-tops, perhaps the ultimate betrayal of a young boy’s life. It’s only in the play’s last minutes (of a very tight fifty-minute production) that Alexander gets a reprieve. He finally gets some needed attention and the soothing message that everyone has bad days and tomorrow’s a new start. In anyone’s hands other than the Coterie’s, a finale like this would be a cold plate of bland cheese — here, it’s rich and flavorful.
Late Night Theatre’s Koonce codirected the show with Jeff Church and has enlisted Late Night regular Jon Piggy Cupit as properties designer. Given that Fugate is currently on that company’s Old Chelsea stage in Sweet (underground) Charity, and Smith and set constructor Brian Atkins appeared there in The 1983 Drill Team Massacre, it’s safe to say that Late Night Theatre is taking over the world — or at least children’s theater as we know it. The other designers — set designer Charlie Corcoran, costumer Jennifer Myers Ecton, lighting designer Art Kent and sound designer Donna Miller — have no obvious ties to Late Night Theatre, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been suitably brainwashed to buy into the troupe’s philosophy that engaging theater skillfully walks that line between serious art and pure revelry.
One would be advised to see Alexander two or three times to catch all of the little throwaways and asides that keep bubbling to the surface. When Mother, for example, walks by her bickering sons and says, “Boys, boys, boys,” they don’t acknowledge it at all, but the press night audience erupted in laughter. Whether it’s Koonce’s silly wig and headband or her deadpan delivery is beside the point — it’s simply indicative of how everything about the show works so well. One would be so advised if it weren’t completely — and deservedly — sold out for the entire run.