The chaperone was as stern as she was apparently clairvoyant: "It's going to be a great show. We are going to mind our manners and have a wonderful time."
The expectations were made clear Wednesday morning to the 350 or so children filing in for the Arden Theatre's production of Sideways Stories From Wayside School (running through Feb. 15). She needn't have worried; the children did have a wonderful time. But, much like the adults in this adaptation by John Olive from Louis Sachar's children's book franchise, you had to wonder about the adults who brought it to stage.
Sachar's characters, who also populate an animated movie and Nickelodeon cartoon, borrow from children's literature: a teacher who turns children into food, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel; a mysterious projected face that, Oz-like, turns out to be beneficent, and musical instruments of Seussian form and name (a barfenspiel).
But unlike those tales, which are gateways to larger points, Sideways Stories races along, dotted with sitcom-cliche characters, until it spools out to an end devoid of any kind of real point. Even well-directed by Whit MacLaughlin, endowed with stylish visuals and sound design, and finely acted by a tight cast of bright personalities, the show arrives starved of ideas.
Arden's Cinderella (last year's holiday show) elegantly matched blacks, whites, and grays to characterizations, and gave avian form to concepts of bondage and freedom. But there aren't a lot of layers to Sideways Stories. Robbed of consequential story development, it is like a cartoon whose shape hinges on nothing more than getting to the commercial break.
The story springs from a promisingly nonsensical setup. The action takes place on the 30th floor of a dystopian school. The classroom is tilted 90 degrees clockwise, so the floor and ceiling are where the walls should be. No one is who they seem, not even, for a time, the good Mrs. Jewls, whose body becomes inhabited by the spirit of the late, evil Mrs. Gorf. If you know the books or cartoon, you may appreciate the random appearance of a dead rat or tango queen. Otherwise, they ring hollow, irrelevant to the story.
The closest suggestion of an evolution comes when Myron, played by a winsome Robert Hager, expresses guilt over his part in turning Mrs. Gorf into an apple. But then the teacher who unwittingly eats the apple ends up getting the blame, and so Myron's journey of conscience seems to reach a dead end.
The show's young audience appeared highly entertained, and shouldn't that be enough? Well, no.
For one thing, entertainment for children comes at a discount today, residing in their very pockets in a slender slab of microchips. For another, it's a missed opportunity. This end of the business is more than a sideline. At the Arden last season, 43 percent of attendance came through the children's theater program, generating almost a third of the company's total ticket income. Children's theater is an important investment - in potential theatergoers for life.
It was clear from the post-show Q&A with the actors that the children had given thought to stagecraft. How did the evil Mrs. Gorf turn into an apple? (By way of a trap door.) But Sideways Stories may not give its audience enough credit for being capable of absorbing more, the kind of more that can bait, hook, and pull in the culture victim without knowing he or she has been caught.
Picture this: an adaptation that gives a writer enough license to shape characters and tell a good tale, and then put in the hands of a team as talented as the one at the Arden. Curtain falls. Everyone oohs.
Sideways Stories From Wayside School
Through Feb. 15 at Arden Theatre,
40 N. Second St.
Information: 215-922-1122, www.ardentheatre.orgEndText