Imaginatively designed, directed and acted, the Denver Children's Theatre production of Tomato Plant Girl is, as shows for young people go, a breath of fresh air. Wesley Middleton's work, currently playing at the Mizel Arts Center, teaches the difference between conformity and friendship by focusing on how relationships develop instead of how loudly the set can explode. True, there are sights and sounds aplenty, but by and large, the special effects accent the action instead of substituting for it, and the lessons learned prove as valuable as they do simple. (Note to all civic-minded knee-jerkers: One of two Barbie dolls used in this production has but one leg and, if you look really hard, appears to be half a Maybelline shade darker than the other.)
As the fifty-minute play begins, we're introduced to Little Girl (Annie Butler) and her cohort, Bossy Best Friend (Anna Marie Wilcox), both of whom reside in a small hamlet called Heretown. As their names suggest, one of the girls has a penchant for telling the other what to do, as well as when and how to do it. Worse, Bossy punctuates many of her demands with the suffix "Or else!" -- a nasty habit, we soon learn, that she picked up from her controlling mother (Carla Kaiser supplies the never-seen mother's voice). In due time, Bossy discovers that Little Girl's tomato plant is a lot healthier than hers, despite the fact that Bossy's is flanked by a trendy white wire fence (and requisite pink flamingo) while Little Girl's cultivated stalk sits unceremoniously in the middle of an old rubber tire. So before embarking on a days-long journey, Bossy forces her pal to give her the healthier plant as a sign of their friendship -- or else. To absolutely no one's surprise but everyone's delight, the healthy plant, having been transplanted to Bossy's garden and nurtured by Little Girl, eventually comes to life in the form of Tomato Plant Girl (Hilary Blair).
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Although some expository scenes are likely to test the patience of those expecting an action-packed fable, director Luanne Nunes de Char keeps things moving and fills pauses between scenes with some enchanting special effects: A groundhog puppet works its way up a visible burrow to a hole at the edge of the stage; clouds of fireflies buzz when dusk settles over the tomato patch; and several pairs of roguish eyes light up when a crescent moon appears on the midnight-blue horizon. (Charles Dean Packard designed the colorful setting.) The actors add to our enjoyment by delivering full-bodied, nicely shaded portrayals, allowing youthful viewers to grasp things on their own instead of playing down to them. Wilcox, a talented newcomer, is right on as the snotty Bossy; Blair, a veteran of the Denver Center's touring outreach programs, is positively organic as the dirt-eating plant; and Butler, best known for her work with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, makes a welcome return to the Denver stage as the precocious Little Girl.
Tomato Plant Girl
Mizel Arts Center at the JCC, 350 South Dahlia Street
Presented by the Denver Children's Theatre
through May 6, 303-316-6360
Perhaps best of all, Tomato Plant Girl gently illustrates that people don't have to surrender their individual personalities (or even their Barbie doll preferences) in order to be best friends.