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Review: There's a lot to dig-diggity-dig about 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Posters and press for "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" neglected to say if the Theater for Young Audiences production that opened Friday night was in the Underground or on the Playhouse main stage.

The answer is ... both.

The play adapted from Roald Dahl's book was on the Playhouse stage, but it was also underground because when you looked straight up from your seat all you could see was brown butcher paper. That is because we were in the burrow where this family of foxes lives, which meant wide-eyed kids were walking into about the biggest set design the Playhouse can possibly pull off.

This is the second TYA production to be done on the main stage, the other being Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach." The tradeoff is intimacy for spectacle. Just imagine what it is like for preschool kids walking into this setting for their first theatrical experience.

There might be a sudden run on rolls of butcher paper in the Twin Ports this month.

Director Robert Lee welcomes the audience and informs everybody "you have to get involved or we can't finish the story." His effective warm-up has everybody practicing laughing, clapping and going crazy.

The audience participation is developed right from the start, when Badger (KT Magnolia) sings a song to start the story and we have to shout "FOX!" on cue. Badger also makes it clear that some may know the story and some do not, but everybody is going to have fun.

Mr. Fox (Cheryl Skafte) and Mrs. Fox (Lindsay Bushnell) live in the burrow with their kith and kit (the energetic and enthusiastic trio of Cate Peterson, Annabelle Modeen and Campbell Florence). Meanwhile, top side there are a trio of dim-witted farmers, Boggis (Jody Kujawa), Bunce (Kitara Peterson) and Bean (Mike Pederson), who want to put an end to Mr. Fox's successful career as a purloiner of their poultry.

The cast consists of six adult members of the Playhouse Resident Company and eight younger performers, who often function as a sort of Greek chorus — that is, if Sophocles had ever thought to give his chorus cute noses and animal ears. The latter actually play twice as many roles as the grownups, although the three farmers each turn up as some other interesting characters (to be frank, there is no role Kujawa is too chicken to play).

Some of the kids in the front row were a little bloodthirsty, but overall the young audience was amazingly attentive throughout the 50-minute show. It was also interesting to see that when kids were too shy to do the whole "diggity-diggity-dig" routine, their parents compensated big-time.

There is some funny shovel slapstick, a charming little song, a bit of Edgar Winter and the Rolling Stones, a scene-stealing rat, a tongue-twister song about "cider inside her insides," and if it is TYA you know sooner or later that there will be puppets.

Put it all together and you get the fantastic "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

Go see it

What: Theater for Young Audiences' "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 22

Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: $15 adults, $12 children. Call (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org

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