One of the more obscure Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, “Thumbelina,” is the story of a tiny, yet fierce heroine who is kidnapped and then begins an epic adventure homeward to her mother.
You can always count on the Popcorn Hat Players, the children’s outreach arm of Gamut Theatre, to encourage plenty of audience participation. The players approach all their audiences with enormous enthusiasm and silliness aplenty. If you’re in the audience and you’re not dancing and singing along with the cast, you might just be the odd one out. (Go ahead and groove; no one’s looking, and I won’t tell anyone.)
For the adults watching the play alongside their little ones, “Thumbelina” delivers slapstick comedy, familiar dance tunes, and Charlie Chaplin plunked right into the storyline. (Story adaptation by Melissa Nicholson.)
The story of Thumbelina (Abby Carroll) begins the way most fairy tales do: deep in the woods where we meet talking animals and super sketchy people. The beautiful ones are trustworthy, and the evil ones have ugly costumes, facial warts (usually), and ulterior motives. It’s easy to tell apart good from evil.
Thumbelina’s beautiful mother (Erin Shellenberger) wishes for a child. From stage right, enter an old witch (Lyeneal Griffin) who lives down the lane, who—poof!—grows a tiny daughter from the center of a flower.
Because Thumbelina was no bigger than her mother’s thumb, she could not help much with the housework. So, she entertained her mother instead, with endearing ballet and jazz dancing to songs best described as reworked vintage genre bends. (Think Postmodern Jukebox.)
Then Thumbelina gets kidnapped by some ugly toads (Shellenberger and Griffin), one of whom wants to marry her. (Talk about built-in facial warts!) This plot twist transports the audience into a world where all the characters are Thumbelina-sized.
Then Charlie Chaplin (Ross Carmichael) comes to the rescue, arms and legs flailing, to “The Sting” theme, “The Entertainer,” as he runs. Carmichael showcases an excellent command of silent movie-era non-verbal communication, miming through the entire show, and making use of every speck of stage space to get his ideas across.
Together, Thumbelina and Charlie brave the elements—snow, wind, a near-drowning in the bog. Their adventure takes them to live with a cute Field Mouse (Shellenberger), who puts Thumbelina to work sewing and storytelling. They all live happily until Field Mouse whips out her ulterior motive, proving that sometimes characters with beautiful outsides aren’t always the good guys.
Thumbelina and her new friend, Charlie, follow their tiny hearts back home where her mother awaits her.
To give the audience perspective on how small Thumbelina’s world is, the characters crowd underneath a butterfly kite, reminiscent of walking below the huge monarch-patterned butterflies that used to hang in the breezeway to Strawberry Square.
Before the pandemic locked us all down, I would not have identified so hard with Thumbelina, who lamented, “We are so little, and the world is so big.”
Thumbelina and her world may be small, but the Popcorn Hat Players deliver her story with loud laughs and a huge amount of fun.
“Thumbelina” runs on Saturdays, July 17 through Aug. 14, at 1 p.m., and on Wednesdays during that date range for select school groups. For more information and to order tickets, visit www.gamuttheatre.org or call 717-238-4111.
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