Review: “Sparky!” (Lifeline Theatre)

Jhenai Mootz and Eunice Woods/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett.

Show: Sparky!

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue: Lifeline Theatre (6912 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: 12

Lifeline Theatre is one of my favorite theatres in town.  They focus on adapting literary works, and they do it very well.  They do it so well that most of their shows receive my highest ranking, including their children’s fare.  Sometimes, though, even your favorite flavor isn’t as fulfilling as usual.  That’s the way I feel about “Sparky!”.  This brief musical (script by Jessica Wright Buha, with songs by Laura McKenzie) adapts a 40-page picture book by Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans about a girl who wants a pet.  She eventually adopts a sloth.  The original book is a Charlotte Zolotow Award winner (The award is akin to the Caldecott, but for the text of a picture book, rather than the pictures).

So, the source material seems a solid bet for shifting to the world of the stage.  And, it works on a number of levels.  But, falls flat on others.  Plot-wise the show clicks along at a steady pace.  It isn’t a nail-biter by any means, and not a children’s show that will get the kids in the audience talking back to the characters out of excitement.  The play is divided into two halves, each complete with its own conflict.  Yet, the conflict isn’t enough to drive a story.  Conflict #1?  Mom says no.  Basically, Libby (Eunice Woods) wants a pet, but her mother (Jhenai Mootz) tells her she can’t have one because she’s irresponsible and killed her potted plant at some time in the not too distant past (RIP Planty).  After a bit of song and dance (literally), Mom gives in and says that a pet can be acquired… but only if it doesn’t require bathing, walking, or feeding.  There are references to pet rocks, which I assume is a nod to the fad from the 70s that shouldn’t even be within the memory of the parents of the kids for whom this show is geared.

Andres Enriquez and Eunice Woods/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett.

Conflict #2? Once she has a pet, a neighborhood emotional bully named Mary Potts (Juanita Andersen) convinces Libby that a sloth is an inadequate pet that can’t do anything of interest.  So, she struggles to teach Sparky (Andres Enriquez) to do tricks one might normally expect from an exceptionally intelligent dog.  A presentation of Sparky’s non-existent skills fails to impress Mary Potts.  She says mean things, a neighbor lady says nice things, and Libby realizes she loves her pet just the way he is.

Here’s the problem: The play and production both feel cobbled together.  There are a couple of good songs that have hooks and clever lyrics.   But they are in the latter half.  Before getting to them one must sit through songs that stop the action dead, and are comprised of the safe, somewhat atonal melodies normally found in improvised musical shows in the Belmont Theatre District.  Additionally, the vocal arrangements make for challenging listening.  As the only male in the cast, Enriquez may be trying to make up for his being alone on the bottom half of the staff, but he has a really strong voice, and the harmonies of the women’s parts are overpowered by him.  The mix is just off.

The comedy within the show doesn’t seem to have been vetted.  There are a lot of moments that left me thinking, ‘Oh! That should’ve been funny.  I see what they are trying to do there.’  I have a daughter who is 10+ years older than the main target audience of this piece.  Many of my peers have kids who are within the proper range, though, and it seems that the adult jokes in the show are based on references that miss the Gen-X crowd completely, or are dependent on the feeling that kids are a burden to those of us who have them.  I’m not sure why that would be funny within the structure of a kids show.

Good points?  Enriquez’s physical work and charisma are something wonderful to behold.  He makes that sloth a fascinating creature from the moment he appears.  Which does raise the question of how on Earth Libby got ahold of a sloth, especially without her mother knowing about it, but that is not really a criticism of the show, rather of the story itself.  I was pulled out of the moment by wondering actively about who would sell an imported exotic animal to a minor.  That can’t have been the goal of the production.

Anyway… The kids who were all around me in the audience seemed to enjoy the show.  It is much more patiently paced than what they would get if they were to have their short attention spans catered to on television.  Were I to have an early elementary-aged child today, I’d take her to see this.  But, I’d also wish that it had been as good as last year’s “Lions of Illyria“.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A slow moving thing. Also, a play about a sloth.

DICE RATING: d8- Not Bad, Not Great