Cheesy, but fun, the YCT’s production of “Chrysanthemum” deserves to be seen by children and Yalies alike because it succeeds in acquiring that “Finding Nemo”-esque hybridization of G-rated condescension and clean, witty humor. Admittedly, it isn’t perfect, and its flaws will likely be less acceptable to children than to grown-ups, but some parts are so innocently funny that the play as a whole is almost unforgettable.
Plucked from a picture book by Kevin Hekes, “Chrysanthemum” follows the story of a young mouse named (you guessed it) Chrysanthemum, whose well-intentioned parents sought out the “absolutely perfect” name for their daughter but arguably gave up a little too quickly. Their quirky taste in eponyms, though, harms no one as long as their growing daughter remains at home amongst games of Parcheesi and dishes of “cheese con queso.”
Of course, conflict arises when Chrysanthemum (Charlotte Martin ’09, a staff reporter for the News) must attend kindergarten at the Three Blind Mice Academy, where she faces the challenges of squeezing all thirteen letters on a name tag and fitting in among ordinary mice like Jenny and Jo. To make matters worse, she is verbally assaulted by the Cheeseheads, a clique of popular mice who find her floral-inspired moniker a tad over-the-top. Most of the ridicule stems from Victor (Matt Bressler ’09), the apparent leader of the Cheeseheads who causes poor Chrysanthemum to turn into a wilting flower.
The Cheeseheads’ entrance into the story also marks the beginning of the play’s comedic brilliance. Bressler especially stands out. His Victor wears the appropriate insidious expression and exaggerated responses to Chrysanthemum’s pathetic attempts at being accepted. The Cheeseheads are the “Mean Girls” of Three Blind Mice Academy; they are so devilishly entertaining in their matching green outfits and sunglasses that they steal the show from Martin’s more sympathetic character.
That is not to suggest that “Chrysanthemum” transcends its genre as a production for children. From the finger-painted sets to giggle-inducing props like pregnant Mrs. Twinkle’s round belly, details that scream “amateur” are literally posted everywhere. And the prop girls who visibly rearrange furniture and set-pieces between scenes admittedly cause some discomfort with the company’s humble facilities. Perhaps that might have been alleviated with background music or with some creative improvisation on their part, like pirouettes and arabesques in between setting down flower pots and hanging up decorations.
A particularly amusing innovation that director Andy Levine brings to “Chrysanthemum” is a short, but refreshing soundtrack of pop songs. Who can keep a straight face when Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” starts playing during Chrysanthemum’s music class, and the mice begin a dance routine of literal choreography and jazz hands?
Unfortunately, individual cast members vary in their abilities to perform for children. Bressler, Fiona Littlejohn-Carrillo ’09 (as Mrs. Cheddar) and Andrea McChristian ’08 (in the role of Chrysanthemum’s Mom) each excel in their well-projected voices and aptly magnified personas, but other cast members could be more extroverted and more juvenile, rather than looking like they’d prefer to be in their dorms reading course packets.
No one is too bad, though, and everyone seems to enjoy interacting with children. There is, in fact, plenty of dialogue between cast and audience in “Chrysanthemum,” none of which comes across as too forced. For example, at one point the mice get to audition for the school musical by singing their favorite songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” which are familiar enough to engage younger audience members in participation.
The message of the play also relates well to anyone who’s ever had a name they didn’t like, obliviously out-of-vogue parents or a problem fitting in at school. And from a critical standpoint, the story might even be said to deconstruct the notion that something, in this case a name, must be either “absolutely perfect” or “absolutely dreadful.” “Chrysanthemum,” the name and the play, is neither, but rather a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theater for anyone, especially someone who likes cheesy puns.