Review: ‘The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Stupid Fairy Tales’ at The Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia

If you think that happy endings, moral lessons, and the power of goodness magically triumphing over the forces of evil are the stuff fairy tales are made of, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Stupid Fairy Tales will make you think again. A riotous postmodern deconstruction of the genre, the 1992 children’s book by Jon Scieszka (author) and Lane Smith (illustrator), adapted for the stage by John Glore, is irreverent, cynical, sarcastic, and sardonic. These are not merely fractured fairytales, they’re completely cracked, and this is one children’s show, now in production at Arden Theatre Company, that adults will enjoy even more than the kids!

1.Ashton Carter, Leah Walton, Doug Hara, Rachel Camp, and Scott Sheppard. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ashton Carter, Leah Walton, Doug Hara, Rachel Camp, and Scott Sheppard. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Matthew Decker directs a lively cast of “5 great actors” (as touted in the zany program), each playing multiple roles with unbridled energy and unrestrained wackiness, as familiar childhood characters wander in and out of each other’s narratives, storylines become jumbled, and all expectations of “happily ever after” are shattered. Narrated by Jack (Doug Hara), who opens the show with a hilarious curtain speech, the collection of ten twisted parodies reimagines such classics as “The Ugly Duckling” (now “The Really Ugly Duckling”–played by Scott Sheppard–doesn’t grow into a beautiful swan, just a really ugly duck who remains the victim of mean-spirited taunting); “The Frog Prince” (Leah Walton as “The Other Frog Prince” isn’t really a cursed royal, but just lies about it to get a kiss from a beautiful princess, portrayed by Ashton Carter in drag); and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (here Carter’s “The Boy Who Cried ‘Cow Patty’” repeatedly interrupts his cast mates with his nonsensical exclamation until he is finally flattened from a surprise by the giant from “Jack’s Bean Problem”).

The non-traditional versions of the beloved tales are sprinkled with self-referencing jokes about books (it’s not the sky that’s falling in “Chicken Licken” but the table of contents) and the theater (Rachel Camp’s Princess proclaims that she’s “a method actor” as she exits her scene, and chickens, as it turns out, are especially prone to missing their cues), while a health inspector (Sheppard) threatens to shut down the show for its unsanitary conditions and “The Stinky Cheese Man” of the title (also played by Sheppard) emits clouds of stench from his armpits. Nothing is sacred here, though there are “hallelujahs” throughout, including a pre-show track of “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, an opening number with new words set to the tune of “The Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, and a closing number sung to the melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Ashton Carter, Scott Sheppard, and Rachel Camp. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ashton Carter, Scott Sheppard, and Rachel Camp. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s colorful set and Jillian Keys’ wildly mismatched costumes recycle everyday objects like plastic cups, feather dusters, hula hoops, and oversized playing cards to create their clever designs. Maria Shaplin illuminates the pensive Jack with focused “thinking lights” as he ponders how to evade the murderous threats of the giant, whose booming voice and footsteps resonate through the theater and rock the seats in Michael Kiley’s affecting sound design, and Jenn Rose provides spirited choreography for Kiley’s original music.

It’s a whole lot of updated fun, and top-notch children’s entertainment that will appeal to contemporary audiences of all ages.

Running time: Approximately 65 minutes, with no intermission.

3. Arden, stinkycheeseman postcard

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Stupid Fairy Tales plays through Sunday, June 12, 2016, at Arden Theatre Company’s Arcadia Stage – 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase online

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