Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

The cast of Emerald City Theatre’s  “Fantastic Mr. Fox” at Victory Gardens. (Photo by Austin D. Oie)

(Editor’s note: Because of a production error, the incorrect review appeared in this spot previously. This is the correct version.)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Emerald City
Theatre at Victory
Gardens Theater,
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Jan. 12, 2019 (evening and daytime performances)
Tickets: $20
Phone: 773-871-3000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Some kids’ shows are for children of all ages. Emerald City’s Chicago premiere of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the company’s first outing on Victory Gardens Theater’s main stage, isn’t really one of them

While David Wood’s stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book deals with adult-inclusive themes—such a diverse community coming together to overcome adversity and survive—the style is geared toward the younger set.

The story is straightforward and replete with repetition. The songs with music by John Kirkpatrick and Peter Pontzen are simple and performed with unaffected charm by the ensemble members who play multiple instruments. The staging on Michelle Lilly’s multilevel set has a homespun quality, as does Jamal Howard’s choreography. The same is true of Keith Parham’s lighting, Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, and Alison Siple’s costumes.

Kid-friendly activities start even before the play itself. The cast circulates in the audience, blowing bubbles and tossing beach balls, inviting us to join in sing-alongs. After 10 or 15 minutes, the lights dim, and the Narrator (Brianna Buckley), who doubles as Badger, begins the tale.

At the outset, Mr. Fox (an appealing Mario Aivazian) is living happily underground with Mrs. Fox (lovely Tia Pinson) and their two children (Rebecca Keeshin and Adhana Reid). Like the other burrowing animals – weasels, moles, rabbits, badgers – they enjoy the plentiful food they steal from the farmers who live above ground.

These cruel, stupid humans are named Boggis (Aaron Lawson), Bunce (Isa Arciniegas), and Bean (Jeffrey Hoge). They mostly raise chickens, ducks, and turkeys, though Bean has a sideline in cider. They’re fed up with being outwitted by the wily fox and having their livestock snatched, so they decide to kill him.

On their first try, an ambush, they shoot off his tail. Next, they bring shovels to dig down to Mr. Fox’s home, but he and his family dig faster and further to escape – to the tune of many refrains of “Digga, Digga, Digga.” Then the farmers haul out the major equipment, pretty much destroying the whole hill where the burrowing animals live in the process. But still the foxes elude them by being better diggers.

Finally, the farmers surround the hill and decide to starve the animals out. They wait on the edge of the massive crater they’ve created, planning to pick off the critters as they emerge in search of food.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Fox outsmarts the dimwitted farmers once again. I won’t reveal how he does it (just in case you haven’t read the book), except to say that he teams up with Badger, and the result is a purloined feast for them and all their furry friends.

Even putting aside the dubious morality of stealing, there’s something a little creepy about Dahl’s story (like many of his others). It’s not that the humans are the murderous heavies who ruin the environment. That’s not hard to accept. Rather, the issue is that the foxes not only are killing their fellow creature – albeit poultry – they’re relishing their success at doing it.

I don’t know what message that is supposed to send to children. Then again, they’re probably not even thinking about that but rather are just enjoying seeing the underdog – or rather under-fox – have his day.  That’s just another reason this show is more for them than for adults.