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"Dandelion" is a feast of the senses
Theater Review by Jay Reiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1981

Abracadabra, we have a new magic show in town. The magician’s name is Douglas Spaulding, and get a load of the tricks: Douglas can put out the stars in the night sky and make the sun rise each morning; by simply pointing his finger he can get people to wake up, yawn and fry hot cakes. There’s lots more he can do, but most impressive of all — Douglas is only 12 years old.

About 25 years ago, science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury interrupted his travels to outer space and came down to earth long enough to tell us of his boyhood days in Illinois. Bradbury has turned his autobiographical novel into a play with music and the result is a delightful concoction called "Dandelion Wine."

To be perfectly accurate, it’s not really a magic show. It’s an imagination show, which is even better. The difference between the show is the difference between sawing a woman in half and a visit with Alice in Wonderland. Sawing people in half is magic, "Dandelion Wine" is wonderland.

There may be no Martians or lunar craters on stage, but the journey we make through Doug’s boyhood summer of 1928 is every bit as fanciful as Bradbury’s science fiction. We cross paths with a happiness machine, a time machine and a tarot witch who sings a sad song for a penny. There’s Paralitefoot tennis sneakers that can change a boy into an antelope and a man back into a boy again. Best of all, Grandpa and Doug’s amber elixir of memory, time caught and corked in a bottle.

If Bradbury’s reminiscence reminds us a little of Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town," that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Grover’s Corners, N.H., in 1901 has been replaced by Greentown, Ill. (actually Waukegan, Ill. of Bradbury’s youth), in 1928. Both plays are filled with deep affection for the simple (yet wondrous) experience of growing up in a small town.

But "Dandelion Wine"compresses its universals into a more personal, upbeat framework. Doug, at 12, discovers he’s alive, really alive, and the play takes its cue from that boyish epiphany. Where "Our Town" wants us to hold life dearer by viewing it through the transparency of death, "Dandelion Wine" is a feast of the senses, with a few bad bellyaches along the way to heighten the drama. 

The play in many ways is a meditation on time, an idea that has always fascinated Bradbury. Time passes, and there’s only memory to catch it again. But for Doug, memory is double-edged: a way to hold on to the past, on one hand; a way to seal off the future, on the other. Doug’s summer starts out auspiciously enough, but ends in a series of disasters that threaten to keep him frozen in the past. 

To dramatize the point, Bradbury has rewritten one of the novel’s minor characters, a summer boarder named Bill Forrester (Thomas Van Buren), to represent Doug as his grownup, troubled self. The device isn’t totally successful, but does give the play a dramatic tension the anecdotal novel lacks. The play’s last scenes are quite moving when these two discover the meaning they have for each other.

The Colony, who specializes in doing Bradbury plays, have outdone themselves in this production. The stage is filled with surprises: a movie screen showing scenes from the original "Phantom of the Opera," an electric Green Machine to transport two spinsters, Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, all about town, a traveling fortune teller’s booth, a mason jar filled with 427 fireflies that glow like jade fire, and much more.

The best surprise, however, is John Allee’s wide-eyed performance as Doug. Allee is asked to play Everyboy, and does so with an astonishment so real you can practically hear him hum. He sings well, too.
Ann Barclay is another character rewritten for the play. In the book she was 95-year-old Helen Loomis, but here she’s the attractive town librarian Doug gets a crush on. Barbara Beaman has a lovely voice and lands a special warmth to the role.

There’s lots of funny stuff in "Dandelion Wine." One of the best numbers in the show is a sort of ghost story sung by Miss Fern and Miss Roberta called "The Lonely One." The lonely one is the town bogeyman, and Dixie Neyland Tymitz and Toni Tomei capture the giggly scare in the song just right. Jeffrey Rockwell has written catchy lyrics to go with much of his music.

Grandpa, who presses the dandelion wine each year to store up the summer memories, is agreeably turned out by Stuart Lancaster. The large cast also includes fine cameos from Don Woodruff, RoZsa Horvath, John Thomas Clark, Bradley Della Valle, Paul Eggington, Ivy Bethune and Michael Sharrett. As Doug’s younger brother, Jim Calvert could slow his speech and singing down to a manageable speed.

Gene Mazzanti’s storybook set casts an enchantment of its own, helped immeasurably by Michael Lincoln’s lighting and Don Woodruff’s colorful costumes. Directors Terrance Shank and Todd Nielsen have orchestrated the show skillfully, capturing Bradbury’s innocent vision down to the last buzzing bee and chirping cricket. "Dandelion Wine" is a memorable visit back to childhood, and a tale well told.

Dandelion Wine (1981) at the Colony Theatre