Best Yet by Chicago Children’s Theater

‘Hundred Dresses’ tale of bullies and bystanders is the best yet by Chicago Children’s Theatre

THEATER REVIEW: “The Hundred Dresses” ★★★1/2 Through Nov. 8 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.; Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes; Tickets: $28-38 at 312-988-9000 and www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.

With its world premiere of the musical “The Hundred Dresses,” based on the 1944 book by Eleanor Estes and featuring new songs by Ralph Covert of “Ralph’s World” fame, the Chicago Children’s Theatre has finally delivered on its promise to elevate the experience of children’s theater in this city. Here’s a show that offers the young people of Chicago an experience comparable in ambition, professionalism and, crucially, ambience to the city’s established adult institutions.

Better yet, “The Hundred Dresses” is not a remount from Broadway or one of the more established children’s theaters, but a fresh and appealing homegrown adaptation of a moving—but, crucially, not wildly over-exposed—work of children’s literature. It’s the story of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant girl struggling for acceptance in her small-town schoolhouse, and Maddie, the fellow student who come to understand that some of the worst bullies in the world throw no blows. They just stand by and do nothing.

Do they ever. I could think of a few from my own life to prosecute for accessory-after-the-fact. Halfway through the performance Sunday afternoon, I found myself making a list.

The show’s themes are serious—this is, after all, an issue faced by almost every kid in the world. But Wanda’s artistic soul and Maddie’s inherent decency collectively win over the day. Covert’s laudably diverse and melodic score understands that sadness and joyous optimism usually coexist in the life of a child. He has some terrific new songs here—a boppy number called “Dear Wanda,” a lovely ballad called “Wanda Petronski is Missing,” a playful comedic number called “Bounce Willy Bounce” and a mournful song called “Passing of Autumn” that moved me greatly. There’s enough here to see that this Disney Channel personality could easily be tapped for Broadway, especially for family-friendly fare.

This unstuffy show, which I’d say is ideal for 6 to 13-year-olds, is directed with zest by Sean Graney. The show is irreverent, funky and Chicago-style, but there’s nothing that feels cut back or condescending on the stage. You can’t discount the importance of a classy venue like the Royal George Theatre for this company. The kids in the audience feel (and act) as though they’re out on the town, as indeed is the case. Production values are top-drawer. There are even live musicians, hidden somewhere beyond Kevin Depinet’s colorful revolving schoolhouse.

The performers are all strong. Lauren Patten taps into Wanda’s emotional pain with striking rapidity. As the main bully of the show, the out-there Natalie Berg (whose prodigiously creepy performance in “Ruthless” at Pheasant Run some years ago lives with me still) goes for the jugular with intimidating force. And Leslie Ann Sheppard, who plays the show’s emotional conscience, takes the whole theater along on her journey.

As with most new musicals, there still is work to be done. G. Riley Mills’ adaptation (and the rest of the show) seems to run away from the period. I’d bet many of the kids in the theater thought the show was set today, although the show’s talk of immigrants and long voyages only makes sense in its era (it reads as condescending otherwise). Moreover, the main theme of the moral cost of staying silent has even more resonance when you consider the date of Estes’ book.

Kids can handle history. The show should be clearer. Mills and Graney should also be clearer about whether or not they want kids to talk back to the show—the piece currently approaches the audience in half-hearted fashion. This could go any number of viable ways, but firm choices have to be made. I also think the climactic reveal of Wanda’s talents slightly misfires. There is a missing scene that should connect the catharsis of this moment to Maddie’s lesson learned: You gotta suck up your courage and get off the fence.