‘Little Gentleman’: Small story, big heart

You don’t need presents, carols, Scrooge or even Jesus to tell a Christmas tale worth hearing. All you need, as a rock band once told us, is love. That’s the motivation in “The Story of the Little Gentleman,” a one-act at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that’s all about needing love, seeking it and finding it – and at Christmas, as things turn out.

The title character has no other name in Tomas von Brömssen and Lars-Erik Brossner’s play, which they adapted from the book by Swedish author Barbro Lindgren. He’s not an Everyman in Hank West’s performance so much as a middle-aged Everykid: He honks his nose with the loud gusto of a boy, sucks his thumb briefly before falling to sleep and has an innocence that resonated with the elementary-school audience Friday.

At first, he’s onstage with three musicians: violinist Tim Parsons, cellist Tanja Bechtler and multi-instrumentalist Nicole Jasper, who rebuff his tentative advances toward friendship. (Jasper seems mildly interested, but the other two discourage her.) Then he finds a homeless dog (Amy Arpan, wagging an orange tail and sporting one blue eye and pink feet). They bond, though the pooch seems to be changing allegiance once she meets Jasper. Joy soon prevails.

Kids laugh in odd places, perhaps responding to a gesture without understanding the underlying meaning. They laughed when Parsons knocked away the Little Gentleman’s hat, amused by the flying chapeau but not absorbing the bullying behavior.

Yet they must have taken in the mutual loneliness of West and Arpan, who carry on their relationship almost wordlessly. Youngsters would have appreciated the loyalty that inspires a chap to sleep on the floor and give the dog his bed, and his fear that a new friend would gravitate toward a pretty girl rather than a homely guy.

West and Arpan express themselves effectively through silent physical comedy, and the musicians express their approval or disapproval through their instruments. Director Mark Sutton (who runs the PlayPlay! troupe for kids younger than 3), knows how to underline this kind of humor, and the play comes across on a primal – but eternal – level.