“Do you believe in magic?” asks the mysterious bean-producing gardener at the start of Jack and the Bean, Linda A. Carson’s updated take on the classic Jack And The Beanstalk story.
If young audiences members do — and they bring a healthy dose of imagination along — they’ll find themselves quickly tangled up in the simple, but likeable, story that unfolds in Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s season opener.
Carson stays pretty close to the basics of the familiar tale, while giving it an ecological message and paring it down for the stage.
Young Jack (Tim Carlson) lives with his dad on a farm where “the dirt is dead” — nothing’s grown there for years. And so poor Jack is sent to sell his last worldly possessions — a few toys, which he tries to pawn off to kids in the audience (one of many audience participation scenes, which often run on a bit too long, but effectively get the kids, some of whom can sit right on the stage, engaged in the action).
Jack runs into the gardener, played by Allan Zinyk — who also plays Jack’s dad, the giant, and a Richard Simmons-like worm who really wants to get us up and moving. The hapless lad trades his toys for the famous magic bean and from there, his adventure with a giant beanstalk and an even bigger giant, begins.
Along the way, kids learn a lot about how plants actually grow, from composting to the vital importance of bug poop in the growing process (yes, there are a few bodily function jokes here, and the kids at the school matinee I saw loved it).
The story is simple, as is the staging; it has the low-tech, bare bones feel of a show designed to tour, but there are some very clever touches to Al Frisk’s set (like the “dead dirt” farm that transforms into a giant’s garden) and Stephanie Kong’s costumes (the oversized pants and huge Crocs the giant wears drew some big laughs).
Zinyk and Carlson bring lots of energy to the show, but the key here is their audience engagement — and they’re generally very good at it. While they (and director Kim Selody) probably let some of the audience interaction run longer than it needs to, they also give the kids in the crowd lots of opportunity to participate.
Kids and playful grown-ups in the crowd get to join in with everything from a garden insect dance party to helping Jack climb up the beanstalk. As long as the audience is imaginative and engaged — as was the crowd at the performance I saw — the audience participation fills in the gaps of story that is, frankly, pretty slight.
The two-man cast treat their young audience members with respect but are also skilled at steering attention back to the stage when they have to.
With the right audience, and a fertile imagination, Jack and the Bean is a fun outing that will grow on you.