The best children’s theater, like the best Disney classics, is theater that’s not just for kids.  South Coast Repertory knows this well, and the latest entry of its “Theatre For Young Audiences” series is sure to delight not only children … but also the grownups they bring along.


Imagine, with book and lyrics by Doug Cooney and music by David O, tells the tale of a boy named Sam and his best friend T-Rex. Except for occasionally being bothered by Mickey and Smirk, a pair of relatively harmless playground bullies, both Sam and T-Rex lead a pretty happy life. In the first scene, we see them spending the day at the park, where their favorite pastime is to “Laugh Out Loud.” After all (they sing), “ha ha ha is my favorite sound.”  Jumping, bouncing, and twisting along to the music, pretty soon everyone in the playground is adding his or her own unique laugh to the mix.
When Sam tells T-Rex “You are always getting me into trouble,” and then comments to Mickey and Smirk, “I was just talking to myself,” we begin to suspect that Sam may just be the only one who can see T-Rex, a suspicion confirmed by the following exchange:
Sam: I need real friends.
T-Rex: What am I?  Play-Doh?
Sam: I know something you don’t know.
T-Rex: Tell me!  Tell me!
Sam: You’re imaginary!
Sam then goes on to explain to his best friend that he named him T-Rex at the age of five because he wanted a dinosaur. When T-Rex expresses disbelief, Sam goes on. “Anything you say is something I told you,” and “The only Mom and Dad you have are my Mom and Dad,” and “You know how whenever you put something in your pocket it always falls to the floor…?”
Not long after this, Sam and T-Rex are mysteriously separated and T-Rex finds himself alone, with Sam nowhere to be seen.  Instead, T-Rex is joined by Little Debbie, looking and dressed just like the bonneted girl seen everywhere on the snack boxes.  Explains Little Debbie, “You found out that you’re imaginary, and you took it badly.  Bad enough that Sam stopped believing in you and you stopped believing in him.”  T-Rex, it turns out, is in the real world now, and Sam is … inside a box of crayons.
What’s an imaginary friend to do without a friend to imagine him?  Little Debbie has the answer.  “You need to find a kid with no imagination.  When he gets one, you just pop inside.” “Where am I going to find a kid with on imagination?” T-Rex wonders, when who should arrive by Rachel, an oh so serious school-uniformed girl eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.  Not peanut butter and jelly.  Not peanut butter and jam. Not peanut butter and bananas.”  “Plain peanut butter!” exclaims T-Rex triumphantly.  “She has NO imagination at all!”

T-Rex and Rachel (whom he redubs Rocky) soon part on a series of adventures which lead them (in a giant sized paper airplane) to the jungles of deepest darkest Africa, to the icy surfaces of the North Pole, and finally into outer space.
Meanwhile back in the land of crayons…

Director Stefan Novinski is best known for serious adult theater, including South Coast Rep’s 2007 production of A Little Night Music. Here he proves himself equally adept at theater for children, keeping the stage alive with action and imagination. That children’s writer Cooney is a master story teller makes Novinski’s task easy, as do choreographer Sara Wilbur’s bouncy dances. Music master David O has written a half dozen catchy tunes you may just find yourself humming as you leave the theater.

Imagine’s cast couldn’t be better, led by personal favorite Brett Ryback as T-Rex. Ryback can do everything (sing, dance, act, play the piano, write songs, music direct, etc.) as he has demonstrated in shows like On Your Toes and The History Boys.  Here he becomes the most adorable, lovable imaginary friend any child could wish for, and the lucky child is Ryback’s UCLA buddy James Michael Lambert, who matches Ryback step by step for charm and stage presence.  Our awareness that a child must eventually grow up and leave imaginary friends behind only adds poignancy to Sam and T-Rex’s friendship.
The sensational Dawn-Lyen Gardner of South Coast Rep’s A Naked Girl On The Appian Way downplays her glamour as Rachel/Rocky to charming effect.  She is endearing in her lack of imagination, and delightful as she begins to develop one.

Jamey Hood is a very funny Little Debbie, and steals every scene she’s in as Shadow, the quirkiest crayon ever to color a stage.  Meaghan Boeing and Diana Burrano are hilarious in a bunch of roles, most notably the aforementioned Mickey and Smirk, and especially as the Valley Girls of imaginary friends, Tullabelle and Lullabelle.

As with any South Coast Rep production, the design elements are all sensational here, beginning with Donna Marquet’s radiantly Crayola®- colored playground set, rich in blues and greens.  Angela Balough Calin’s costumes run the gamut, from adult sized kids’ wear to make believe Princess gowns to a walking crayon to kooky space aliens … and more.  Tom Ruzika’s lighting makes the set and costumes that much brighter, and Drew Dalzell’s sound design expertly mixes voices and prerecorded accompaniment. Deborah Wicks La Puma deserves top marks for her music direction and arrangements.

Imagine is one kids show that parents and other assorted adults should have no fear of attending. There’s nothing imaginary about its magic. This one gets a WOW! for kids of all ages.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
June 7, 2008
                                                     Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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