From Chicago Theater Beat
Charming and delightful
April 13, 2016
By Lauren Whalen
When it comes to children’s theater, Lifeline knows what they’re doing. Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters is my first foray into Lifeline’s KidSeries, but if this charming and delightful production is any indication, the company provides young children with a fitting introduction to theater. Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters is a sweet and fast-moving musical adaptation of K.G. Campbell’s book. Pleasing to kids and adults alike, it’s a lovely way to spend an weekend morning.
Little Lester (Sam Button-Harrison) likes things just so. He keeps alphabetized checklists, his hobbies include sorting laundry, and his knee socks are always pulled up and coordinated with his sweater vests and bow ties. But when Lester’s Cousin Clara (Elizabeth Levy) – who may or may not actually be a relative – enters the picture, Lester’s ordered world is turned upside down with a side of pom-poms. Not only is Clara a very fast knitter, she thrills in unconventional patterns and embellishments, and takes the shape of a normal sweater as a suggestion rather than a pattern. Clara gives Lester sweater after sweater, and Lester doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, but they’re just not his style. What’s a perfectionist to do?
Scriptwriter Aly Renee Amidel, who also co-wrote the lyrics with Julie Tallarida, keeps the dialogue light and fun with the occasional aside for the adults in the crowd. Scott Tallarida’s score is lively and clever, packing a Disney-like punch. While I haven’t read the original book, I can safely assume that its spirit has been well-preserved in this Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters. The kids in the theater, many of whom were quite young, were equal parts giggly and riveted, their eyes shining and their occasional commentary short but insightful. Director Heather Currie keeps the pacing quick but not frenetic, with a deep understanding of and appreciation for the KidSeries audience. Amidel’s costumes are both artistic and functional – four of the five actors play multiple roles, and Amidel accurately conveys children’s book illustrations while ensuring actors can easily move and change. Alan Donahue’s scenic design is sweetly storybook-reminiscent, all fine lines, soft colors, and two-dimensional props the actors use with aplomb.
The cast is energetic and engaging, skilled at singing, dancing and storytelling with childlike glee. The performance I reviewed featured understudy Mara Dale as Lester’s Cousin Clara and his friend Enid – her bouncy spirit fit in incredibly well with the regular cast members. Amanda Roeder displays excellent physical comedy and timing as Lester’s mother, and Scott Sawa, as Lester’s father, would be right at home on Sesame Street. Chris Vizurraga has some funny moments as Lester’s teacher Mr. Twist, who reveals a surprise about himself to his students. And Button-Harrison is a true children’s theater standout, taking the audience through Lester’s journey with boundless curiosity and optimism.
Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters is a satisfying treat for families. This parable of open-mindedness and creativity has a great message, and this winning musical adaptation is sure to be a favorite. Head to Lifeline on a weekend with your favorite little one in tow.
From the Chicago Reader
March 23, 2016
By Suzanne Scanlon
Fastidious, punctual Lester (Sam Button-Harrison) constantly makes lists classifying things—annoying sounds, sticky substances. It’s hard for him to play with others. Things start to change when Cousin Clara comes to town after her cottage has been consumed by a crocodile (there’s a lot of alliteration in this production aimed at younger children). Clara (Elizabeth Levy) is charming, but spends her time knitting sweaters—all for Lester—each more dreadful than the last. Finally he’s forced to tell Clara what he really thinks of her gifts. Along the way he learns to “embrace the unexpected” and even manages to make a friend. It’s a silly sweet, story, with much of the pleasure coming from adapter/costume designer Aly Renee Amidei’s hilarious, truly dreadful sweaters.
An outlandish, oddly humorous story about a fastidious boy named Lester and his not so snazzy sweaters!
March 23, 2016
By Sally Jo Osborne
What do you do when Cousin Clara’s cottage is consumed by a crocodile? What if she isn’t even really a cousin? Lester is simply suspicious of this ridiculous tall tale because, “Cottages aren’t meant for munching.” Add it to the list of “Suspicious Stuff Starting with a C” says Lester. Now let me explain. Lester likes his life to be in perfect order and really enjoys making lists. He measures his socks so they are exactly in the same place below his knee daily and he likes to comb his hair to the left, but then switches it back to the right. He does not enjoy skipping or having fun with other kids because it could lead to injury and he is very wise beyond his years and prefers predictability. Some would call him a bit persnickety, however, he prefers fastidious.
So when Cousin Clara moves in, his world is turned upside down a bit because he likes things just so. When she presents him with a hand knitted sweater as a gift, he is courteous and grateful yet mortified and embarrassed to wear it. A hooded yellow mustard sweater with purple pom-poms, one arm longer than the other and holes where there should not be holes. Lester is a thoughtful young man and did not want to hurt her feelings and so wears it to school as his parents instructed him to do. He was in disarray and even had one sock down way below his knee that day. He put up with relentless criticism and then “accidentally” got mud all over it when he decided to play with the other kids on the playground for the first time ever! Lester did have fun playing in the mud and destroying that sweater and went home and tell Cousin Clara the bad news.
Cousin Clara is understanding and seems to have an endless supply of dreadful knitted sweaters just waiting for Lester to wear. “Accidents” just keep happening whenever Lester wears a new sweater. This causes anxiety and nightmares for poor Lester and he needs to figure out a solution. When he gets invited to a Birthday Party he gladly accepts and wears a famously feathered hand knitted chicken suit that appeals to the hired clowns with the noisy noses. They want more of the fabulously freaky sweaters and so there was the solution to Lester’s conundrum. Cousin Clara and the Clowns hit the road (sounds like that could be a sequel). Cousin Clara has a new home, the clowns have a costume designer and Lester has his orderly life back.
There are some very snappy and engaging musical numbers such as Fastidious Life, Predictability, and Expect the Unexpected. The CD is available in the box office and is fun and worth the $10.
The small and talented cast plays dual roles and did a great job of it since my 9 year old Ella did not know they were the same people playing different roles. Cast includes: Sam Button-Harrison (Lester) a very funny and believable character reminiscent of Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors, Elizabeth Levy (Cousin Clara, Enit, Bandit) think Paula Dean meets SNL, the multi-talented Amanda Roeder (Mother, Beck, Bandit, Clown), and Scott Sawa (Father, Ben, Bandit, Clown). Lastly, Chris Vizurraga (Mr. Twist, Bandit, Clown) think Welcome Back Kotter enters the 20th Century.
Discovery’s a thrill so explore this show and have fun with your friends and family. “Life’s Like a Sweater my Friend”. Enjoy!