Review: ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ at Providence Players of Fairfax and The Young Hearts

Need a break from Christmas music? Providence Players of Fairfax and The Young Hearts’s production of The Phantom Tollbooth delivers all the joy of the holiday season without the jingle. Based on the beloved children’s book by Norton Juster, Susan Nanus’ stage adaptation proves a perfect outing for the whole family!

Derek Bradley as The Humbug, Talia Cutler as Milo and Amanda Ranowsky as Tock in the Providence Players Production of The Phantom Tollbooth. Photograph by Chip Gertzog.

After self-proclaimed “bored, bored, bored” Milo (Talia Cutler, who shows great potential in this role) receives a mysterious tollbooth as a gift, she finds herself journeying through the Lands Beyond, a fantastical realm where imagination knows no bounds. The opportunities for set design here are endless, and Director Chip Gertzog (who wears many hats in this production, including set and projection designer) rises to the occasion. A large crew of constructors and painters bring several sceneries to life, from a simple child’s bedroom to a bustling city square. The sheer number of sceneries and large-scale set pieces are impressive, and each is as carefully detailed as the last. It’s obvious that an awful lot of time and effort went into this project, with rewarding results.

Talia Cutler as Milo, Kathy White as the Dodecahahedron, Amanda Ranowsky as Tock and Stuart Fischer as The Mathemagician, King of Digitopolis in the Number Mine in the Providence Players production of The Phantom Tollbooth. Photograph by Chip Gertzog.

Dan Schrader designs lighting, where spiraled spotlighting and clever shadow-work add another layer of depth. Sound design by Chip and Jimmy Gertzog round out the atmosphere with a long list of effects, best expressed in a scene with the “Doctor of Dissonance”(Zach Todd), a traveling salesman with an interesting inventory. However, my favorite technical element here are the costumes, designed by Beth Whitehead and aided by specialist Susan Kaplan. They cover an extraordinary range, from simple gray long-johns to glittery princess ball gowns. The characters are over-the-top, and dressed accordingly!

The list of characters Milo meets is a long one. Aided by her new friend Tock the Watchdog (Amanda Rabowsky) and the reluctant Humbug (Derek Bradley, whose hilarious and vibrant performance earns him the loudest applause at curtain-call) the trio set out to save the princesses Rhyme and Reason (Hazel Thurston and Grace Tarpgaard), who have been banished from the Land of Wisdom and sent to live in exile in a castle in the sky. Since their departure, the lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis have been thrown into chaos, and an ongoing feud between their rulers is only making things worse. Azaz the Unabridged, King of Dictionopolis (Bob Thompson) and The Mathemagician, King of Digitopolis (Stuart Fischer) cannot agree on anything, and both believe their kingdoms are superior (ah, the age-old argument of arts versus sciences).

What follows is a riotous adventure that is as deep as it is humorous. A lot of existential questions about meaning and worth are raised, providing the perfect platform for post-show discussions and debate. Whether you’re delighting in the silly, nonsensical nature of the show or reflecting on its more poignant themes (the lucky can do both), its broad appeal is perhaps it’s biggest strength. If you’ve got a house full of relatives that you don’t know what to do with, this is an experience that everyone will enjoy together. Isn’t that what the holidays are about?

The Providence Players’ production of The Phantom Tollbooth offers something for everyone–truly, I believed I enjoyed it just as much (if not more so!) than the children sitting around me. Don’t let this night of family fun go by!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Phantom Tollbooth plays through December 17, 2017 at The James Lee Community Center Theater– 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (703) 425-6782 or purchase them  online.

Co-Produced by The Young Hearts- This special production will support the work of The Young Hearts, a group of amazing teens who raise funds to battle blood cancers and other diseases.  Half of all net proceeds from this production will be donated by the Young Hearts to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.




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