Review: Take the Kids—Take Yourself—to See Leonardo, a Wonderful Show About a Terrible Monster at Chicago Children’s Theatre

It was a rainy Sunday morning, so what’s the best thing to do (as an alternative to staying in bed)? About a hundred parents and kids—and I—thought the best thing to do was go to the Chicago Children’s Theatre.  And it was the right decision because we saw the most delightful play for children of all ages: Leonardo, A Wonderful Show About a Terrible Monster.

Leonardo (Lindsey Noel Whiting) really isn’t a terrible monster; that’s the problem. He’s terrible at bring a monster. He can’t scare anyone. So he determines he’s going to find someone he can scare and he begins a search for the scarediest kid in the world. With help from the librarian and the Scaredy Cat Kid Electronic Database, he comes up with a kid named Sam (Sarah Fornace). It turns out even Sam is hard to scare. In the second part of the play, we meet Kerry (performed by Leah Casey), the second scarediest kid in the world. Sam and Kerry become friends and the play ends with a message for all of us—about being a wonderful friend.

Leonardo at work with his puppeteer, Lindsey Noel Whiting. Photo by Ben Kauffman.

The play, adapted from two books by Mo Willems, is directed by Sarah Fornace and produced by Manual Cinema, Chicago’s fabulous live action and retro-tech production company. It’s hard to categorize Manual Cinema, because there’s no other company like them. They call themselves a multimedia artist collective; they are sort of a theater, sort of a film company and all their old-timey technology and “back stage” work is up front for the audience to see as they perform.

Using hundreds of illustrated puppets, fuzzy Muppet-style puppets, video projection, vintage overhead projectors, green screen techniques, live actors on live cameras, and a live music soundtrack, Manual Cinema brings Willems’ books to life in this engaging new show designed for the whole family.

You can view the show on a big screen to the right of the stage or watch the actors and crew create the story on the stage. There’s no right way to watch Leonardo.

Kerry and Sam with Cloud. Photo by Ben Kauffman.

After the show the artists and their puppets are in the large play room outside the theater where they talk with the kids and show them how puppetry works. The play room is furnished with kid-size tables and chairs, overhead projectors and supplies to make your own shadow puppets.

Leonardo was adapted by Sarah Fornace and Drew Dir from two Mo Willems’ books: Leonardo, the Terrible Monster and Sam, the Most Scaredy Cat Kid in the World. Music, lyrics and sound design are by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter. Puppet and prop design is by Drew Dir and Lizi Breit. Julia Miller and Shay Turnage play Sam and Kerry at other performances. Lily Emerson is the talented narrator, guitarist, vocalist and voice of many characters.

Leonardo, Sam and Kerry. Image courtesy Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Leonardo! A Wonderful Show About A Terrible Monster is recommended for ages 3 and up. The show runs 45 minutes with no intermission, Performances run through October 16 on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The Chicago Children’s Theatre is located at 100 S. Racine. Free parking is available in the lot on the south side of the building. Single tickets are $25-$36, fees not included. Masks must be worn by all while in the building. (My observation at this event and others is that kids don’t seem to mind wearing masks. They just wear them.)

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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