The Metro Theatre Company presented its current touring-performance piece, More Stuff, this past weekend at the auditorium of the Missouri Historical Society. Created mostly through improvisation, More Stuff has no story as such but, rather, is a slick, polished and well-crafted "celebration" of wonder, as director/composer Christopher Gurr states in his program notes. A janitor (Nicholas Kryah) stumbles upon a giant "box" containing four versatile actors/musicians (Wendy Bagger, Jason Cannon, Kate Frank and Tijuana T. Ricks) and lots of stuff -- ladders, tubs, umbrellas, water jugs. In the ensuing vignettes, the group finds way to play with the stuff, without words, in creative and entertaining fashion. Most of the vignettes, especially those incorporating Gurr's lovely music, are charming and fun and theatrical in the best sense of the word; it's the kind of show that Metro, now an institution in its 28th year, does best. But, though there are a few genuinely magical moments, the show sometimes self-consciously points to itself and screams, "Imaginative!"
Enjoyable as it is, More Stuff, like some other Metro productions, seems to be simultaneously a performance and a commercial for the idea that Art Is Good for You. It's children's theater that seems designed to satisfy what adults and funding groups think children should like. Do 4-year-olds really need to be shown that washtubs make good drums? Perhaps theater for young audiences should strive to be full of wonder rather than celebrate it. Of course, there's room for all kinds of theatrical experiences, but if a child is going to see only one play in his or her lifetime (and, for some of Metro's touring audiences, that's sadly the case), perhaps it should be something that captures the imaginations rather than congratulates the child for having one. At one point in the show, the actors take the janitor's mop and, using an old acting exercise, turn it into something else -- a guitar, a light saber, a baton. Then the janitor picks it up and uses it as -- a mop. It's funny, but it's also telling, in a way that I'm not sure the creators intended. Sometimes a mop is just a mop, a tub just a tub, and sometimes kids can be trusted to be the caretakers of their own imaginations.
Someday, some smart theatrical company will present just the songs from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and have a nice, entertaining 40-minute show. Until then, any group that chooses to mount a full production must do battle with the material, or lack of it, that comes between the musical numbers. The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University sends six talented students bravely and energetically into the breach, but the material ultimately proves too problematic to overcome. Charles Schulz's wry and insightful writing, which can elicit a smile when presented in a four-panel strip, may be stageworthy, but not as executed more than 30 years ago by Clark Gesner, who wrote what passes for a book (lifted directly from Schulz's strips) and the catchy music and lyrics for the original show. (The bloated revival that went to Broadway several years ago "improved" the show by throwing money at it and tinkering with the book and songs, solving some problems while creating others. The show at Webster is the original version).
That said, applause to the cast and to director and choreographer Hylan Scott, who does his best to wrench theatricality from the flat script and infuses the musical numbers with entertaining movement. The standouts are Danielle Wetzel as a perfectly fussbudgetty Lucy and Kevin B. Worley, whose tap-dancing Snoopy makes "Suppertime" a highlight. Leanne Stafford is an appealing, warm Patty, injecting personality into one of the strip's nonentities. Eddie Pendergraft, as a fussy Schroeder, has learned the exact piano fingering for his miming of "Moonlight Sonata"; if that's not Webster's acting training in a nutshell, what is? Although Matthew Erickson is properly neurotic and puzzled as the title character and Michael Scott the right type for Linus, both would have benefited from committing a bit more to the extremes of their characters.