One Hundred Dresses and One Important Message
The Chicago Children's Theatre warns against bullying with this timeless musical adaptation.
Come for the pretty dresses, stay for the message. That's the idea behind the Chicago Children's Theatre's The Hundred Dresses, now onstage at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Hundred Dresses, which runs through Dec. 2, is a colorful, energetic and often funny show that also incorporates a thoughtful message: warning grade school audiences against being complicit in cliques and bullying.
This is a musical adaptation of the 1944 children's book by Eleanor Estes. Chicago-based collaborators Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills successfully converted Estes' prose into a lively, humorous script that remembers to play to the parents in the audience every once in a while.
This production marks the first time the Chicago Children's Theatre has held a performance in the suburbs. After a successful run in 2009 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halstead St. in Chicago, and with a strong opening week in Skokie, officials hope to take Hundred Dresses on a national tour, said the theater's publicist, Jay Kelly.
Though the original story may have been written more than 60 years ago, the anti-discriminatory message of Hundred Dresses is timeless enough to feel perpetually timely.
The storyline is set in a small town in America where a shy girl named Wanda Petronski (Briana De Giulio) has just arrived from Poland and is trying to fit in despite her funny accent and well-worn clothes. Yet Wanda's transition to her new environment is thwarted by a dress-obsessed bully named Peggy Hawthorn (Natalie Berg) and her conscience-ridden yes-girl, Maddie Martin (Leslie Ann Sheppard).
Maddie's own poverty leads her to do nothing to help Wanda, who starts insisting to Peggy that she has "a hundred dresses," though she only wears one.
Afraid that she will be labeled as an outsider as well if she stands up to Peggy, Maddie is eventually reminded that " 'nothing' is the devil's middle name," but by then it's too late and Wanda has moved off to the big city, leaving the question of the 100 dresses unresolved.
This may seem like a heavy meditation on the sins of omission, but it's not particularly. The message may be clear but it's not omnipresent. Hundred Dresses comes sugarcoated with plenty of humor, music, zany side-characters and, you guessed it, dresses. Naturally the target audience is girls in elementary school, and the play is recommended for children age 6 and older.
Local theater fixture and member of the Chicago Children's Theatre's Artistic Advisory Board, Sean Graney (who also founded The Hypocrites), directs the show. Clearly his expertise has rubbed off on the actors, all but two of which have returned from the Royal George run.
The Hundred Dresses cast is quite strong and its members harmonize well together on the big musical numbers, though most of the songs aren't particularly memorable. It's one of those musicals that seems stronger and funnier when people aren't singing, but the songs do keep things moving through the play's brisk 65 minutes, a length perfect for schoolchildren's attention spans.
In the end, the strength of Hundred Dresses boils down to the cast, many of them are stage actors experienced beyond their years. Though Leslie Ann Sheppard's Maddie does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, Natalie Berg's villain Peggy is a rare children's baddie played well enough to deserve the ire of adult audiences. Peggy is an insensitive, prissy and greedy pain in the . . . bottom. She's all of the negative connotations one can fit into the phrase "little princess." Elana Ernst and Andrew Keltz both do fantastic jobs as the comedic relief, and Nadirah Bost helps to anchor the play as the cast's wise schoolteacher, Miss Mason.
To accompany the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts' run of The Hundred Dresses the Chicago Children's Theatre is sponsoring a "dress drive" with the Party Dress Project, a local charity established by two Northbrook mothers.
The group collects new and modestly used dresses to be resold on behalf of a local youth services organization. The beneficiary has yet to be determined, but dress sales are held every fall. Kelly, the publicist, estimated that 50 garments were collected during the opening weekend.
"We hope to have hundreds of dresses by the end of the run," said Kelly, who also thanked a local girl who recently held a Hundred Dresses birthday and had her friends donate to the Party Dress Project in lieu of a gift.