Wiley and the Hairy Man
Book by Suzan Zeder

Music by Harry Pickens

Lyrics by Harry Pickens and Suzan Zeder

Directed by Andrew Harris

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Wiley (Tyler Johnson-Campion) and swamp chorus
(J. Copeland Davis, Jenna French and Peyton Evans).
Photo courtesy of StageOne Family Theatre.

Unfettered laughter filled with joy that can only be found in audiences of young children watching the fantastic coming alive onstage is a special treat and should never be taken for granted. So let’s sideline any prejudice against “children’s theatre” and allow that a good story well told, whatever its target audience, might also be enjoyed by mature theatregoers.

Suzan Zeder’s original script for Wiley and the Hairy Man has enjoyed success as a mainstay of young people’s theatre companies since 1972. Now she has joined forces with Louisville musician and composer Harry Pickens to turn the story into a musical. The result seems to require the folk-based tunes for its full effect, never once giving the impression that the music was simply grafted on as an afterthought. This new Wileyreconceives the tale with care.

The story is as elemental as any good fairy tale or folk story must be, positioning an innocent young hero to find the good within himself and face up to an evil that others have failed to overcome. Wiley (Tyler Johnson-Campion) and his “Mammy” (Jamie Lynn Sutton Gilliam) are set against the titular “Hairy Man,” a massive, hirsute figure capable of great, dark magic who has one weakness: dogs. Fortunately, Wiley has a good loyal hound (Doug Scott Sorensen) to aid in his adventure. But it is, finally, through his own resourcefulness that he is able to win the day.

I like that the script so straightforwardly embraces the power of magic in children’s stories, so often foresworn by societal forces that fail to understand that the magic represents the potential in all of us to confront our fears and rise to the challenges that threaten us. That Wiley’s mother and the Hairy Man compete to determine who is the more powerful “conjurer” shows a clear understanding of how supernatural powers function as a solid storytelling device all throughout the history of children’s literature, not to mention the connection to the rich and heady tradition of Cajun mythology heavily suggested by the physical setting in swampy bayou country.

The production plays successfully to the children in the audience, with plenty of broad humor and morality delivered with an absence of heavy-handedness. But the smart playing, the sumptuous production design, and, most of all, the rich and varied score serve up ample pleasures for all ages in attendance.

Wiley and the Hairy Man

October 13 & 20 @ 11 a.m. & 2:00 p.m.

StageOne Family Theatre

The Kentucky Center, Bomhard Theater

501 West Main St.

Louisville, KY