The best children’s books amuse and educate. They touch the heartstrings and they teach something new. If they do this well, they are timeless. Virginia Lee Burton’s “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” is one of those books. It was published in 1939, and was written for her two sons.
Eric Lane Barnes wrote the book, music and lyrics for the stage adaptation about Mary Anne the steam shovel and her partner Mike. Mike and Mary Anne arrive in Popperville broke but hopeful. They’ve traveled far to bid for this job. But to their dismay, their competition is newer, faster and cheaper.
The story opens in the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production with a vaudevillian scene in which Rufus preps the construction site for the new town hall in Popperville. She is joined by her boss, Mr. Swap, a very busy man with a nasty disposition. Mr. Swap is all business. He wants the foundation to be dug immediately. He personifies the ideology that progress doesn’t have a heart. Yesterday’s innovation is tomorrow’s junkyard fodder.
But everyone who shows up is allowed to bid. The machines strut their stuff, and boy are they impressive. Tanya McClellan plays the Electronic Shovel, a green marvel who is “a rig that loves to dig.” Scott Miller plays both the softhearted Mike and the imposing Nucleonic Diggatron 5000. Compared to the sweet Mary Anne and the charming Electronic Shovel, Nukey (as he is dubbed by Mr. Swap), is frighteningly efficient. Not only can he dig faster and more efficiently than the others. He can also produce coffee and chicken broth. The lyrics sung during the bidding process provide a lesson in the history of automation that parents will enjoy.
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The four actors do marvelous jobs impersonating several characters, each without a hitch. Miller radiates warmth as Mike, whose relationship with Mary Anne displays the best attributes of friendship. He is loyal and grateful, and believes that together they can achieve anything. His depiction of Nukey is devoid of emotion and quite amusing.
Tanya McClellan segues from good-natured construction worker Rufus to sassy Electronic Shovel to enthusiastic Virginia who leads the cheers for Mary Anne. Steven Seay goes from the villainous Mr. Swap to the boyish Lee Burton so smoothly it’s hard to believe they are the same person. Leslie Ann Giles is the one constant as Mary Anne, and she uses her role to deliver a message.
Courtney Scott pulls out all the stops on costume design. From Mike’s wide striped cartoonish overalls, to Mary Anne’s shovel mouthpiece complete with a winsome eye, the costumes have childish appeal. The cold blue of Nukey contrasts with the lively red of Mary Anne. Peter Smeal’s props make great statements, including the townspeople small enough to carry in one hand, but powerful in their message of encouragement.
The tale will resonate with the young and their parents. Mary Anne is a pinnacle of wisdom. She knows she is obsolete and she is OK with that. She is ready to move on to the next chapter of her life.