Photo by Erin Nevitt.
Harold and the Purple Crayon
By Crockett Johnson
Directed by Andrew D. Harris
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
I am not given to proclaiming any item the “best ever,” but Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon was always one of my favorite children’s books: an astonishingly simple and pure visual expression of the boundless potential of a child’s imagination presented with two colors and a spare, minimal text.
So one might approach a stage adaptation with some trepidation, since the source material seems pretty close to perfect. So my first complement to StageOne Family Theatre’s production is that it maintains the straightforward charm of the original while engaging the viewer and embracing a technological upgrade involving audience participation through digital tablets and projections.
The world and adventure that Harold creates with the eponymous crayon happen on an oversize screen behind Harold. In an innovative move, StageOne posits a tablet in the lap of each audience member so that they may draw pictures when prompted that appear on an oversize screen behind Harold, and trigger sound effects that feed into the sound design. It is an intriguing experiment that overcomes the small percentage of glitches (my own pad never worked but I demurred from callling on one of the many staff and volunteer assistants available from helping the several hundred school children in my audience – kids come first) to render a unique, interactive theatrical experience. The audience drawings appear onscreen not just as individual images, but at times they are integrated into the land and cityscapes that have emerged from Harold’s purple crayon.
Although the book’s only character is Harold, the play introduces a storyteller (a warm and avuncular Alphaeus Green, Jr.), important as much for guiding the kids through their digital paces as much as narrating the plot, and a musician who springs from Harold’s crayon to the screen and then the stage (a charming and humble Ben Solee). These two figures are functionally necessary to Harold’s move to the stage, but they exist comfortably within the extended bubble of the conceit. Whatever changes occur in the adaptation, the essential spirit of Crockett Johnson’s story is never lost.
Matthew Brennan is not bald like Harold in the book, but he brings a fluid, guileless, physicality to his appropriately silent role that seemed to delight the school field trip audience the morning I attended. Alphaeus Green, Jr. and Ben Solee were sturdy support and more, with Mr. Solee sporting both a suit and a cello designed to emulate the purple-line-drawing aesthetic of Harold’s world. The overall set design consisted of three Crayola color storybook platforms and the oversize screen flanked by giant crayon forms standing on both sides, simple and right, once again.
The tech design crew, Animation Designer Creston Parker, and Projection Designer Tony Hardin, deserve great credit for taste and discretion in the understated work that gives primacy to story over flashy effect. Ben Sollee’s music mostly feels subservient to the mission of the show, but he has a a couple of songs, including the sing-along, “We’re Having A Big Pie Party,” that nicely engaged the kids, and I must confess, I was singing it on the way out of the theatre myself.
The program notes tell us that author David Leisk, aka Crockett Johnson, was a far more prolific and influential literary figure beyond what his most famous work, a small, unassuming volume, would ever indicate. Yet Harold and the Purple Crayon in and of itself stands as quite a legacy, an enduring testament to the core imagination of childhood. If adults pursue art, in part, as a means of rediscovering childhood imagination, this story is one of the purest and most potent expressions of that idea.
Harold and the Purple Crayon
March 26 & April 2, 2016
11am & 2pm
March 26, 11am – Sensory-friendly performance
StageOne Family Theatre
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.