By Colin Douglas
Underdogs have suffered from being picked on and bullied since the beginning of time. Today, because of everyone’s obsession with their smartphones and their easy access to social media, bullying is happening on an even larger scale.
A spineless coward can now attack his victim anonymously and with very little provocation. It’s a sad state of affairs and a situation that’s resulted in countless cases of depression and suicides.
But back in 1944, when Eleanor Estes wrote her classic children’s story, The Hundred Dresses, which was named a Newbery Honor Book, bullying was a personal, face-to-face attack against others. Kids who didn’t carry the “right” lunchbox or wear the cool jacket or sneakers might become a victim. The bully would stop at nothing, from ridiculing and name-calling to ganging up on his victim and making him the butt of cruel jokes.
In Estes’ story a new student, a little Polish girl named Wanda Petronski, who’s family recently immigrated to America, becomes a victim of bullying. The children laugh at her broken speech and make fun of her inability to read English fluently. They torment Wanda for having an odd-sounding Polish surname and, particularly the other girls, tease her because she wears the same dress and battered boots to school everyday. To save face, Wanda claims that she has one hundred beautiful dresses all lined up in her closet at home; she just wears her faded blue dress to school so she can keep the others for special occasions.
Weeks pass and the teacher holds a drawing contest for her students. The girls are challenged to design the prettiest dress they can imagine. Wanda secretly enters the contest, drawing the most exquisite color pictures of one hundred beautiful dresses, the kind she’d always dreamed of wearing someday. But the teasing has taken its toll. Wanda’s tearily confessed to her father that she no longer wants to go to this school because she’s disliked and ridiculed. The Petronski family quietly moves away to another town where Wanda will fit in with the other children.
When the students find out that Wanda has won the contest they realize that the hundred dresses she said she owned were actually only hanging in the closet of her imagination. The kids begin to understand the consequences of their heartless cruelty when the teacher reads a letter from Mr. Petronski, and they learn that their teasing hurt Wanda so much that she couldn’t didn’t want to return to class. Unwittingly, the children’s cruelty drove the Petronskis away, but from this experience the class learns a valuable lesson about bullying.
The current restaging of its 2009 one-act musical, one of Chicago Children Theatre’s most popular productions, is simply sensational. Created by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills, this 2017 remount is once again directed with vim, vigor and verve by the incomparable Sean Graney (of The Hypocrites). The catchy, toe-tapping score is overseen by musical director and arranger Andra Velis Simon, and accented by some sassy choreography by Tommy Rapley. John Musial’s vibrant, colorful 1940’s scenic design is welcoming, eye-popping and very child-friendly. Theatre patrons are invited to either sit on the stage or in the auditorium, creating an almost in-the-round performance. Samantha C. Jones’ costumes bring period-perfection in her brilliant color and detail. And Heather Gilbert has washed the whole picture with delicate lighting that reflects the changing of the seasons.
Wanda is brought to life by lovely, multitalented Emily Berman. She brings poignance and sincerity to the role of a child who’s a stranger in a strange land. She’s a real little girl whose only wish is to fit in to her new world and make new friends. Ms. Berman will be remembered for wonderful portrayal of the title role in Northlight’s recent Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Also a standout is the diminutive bundle of talent that is Christine Bunuan, who plays Maddie. Seen recently in CCT’s Frederick and A Year with Frog and Toad” Ms. Bunuan is the emotional center of this play. She effectively represents the audience in this story as the character who would like to show Wanda some kindness and become her friend. However, like many of us, she’s easily swayed by another selfish, controlling schoolmate named Peggy (a forceful turn by the gifted Erin O’Shea). Like everyone in this production, all three girls are not only sensational singers but also accompany the cast on a variety of instruments.
The rest of the ensemble is equally stellar. Dynamic Danielle Davis takes charge of the classroom as Ms. Mason, the kids’ teacher. Dana Omar, a multifaceted performer with many Hypocrites productions to her credit is fantastic and very funny as quirky schoolmate, Cecile. Nik Kmiecik, who’s been seen all over town in a number of captivating roles, is humorous and endearing as young Willie Bounce. The variety of costumes Willie wears each day to school make him more than memorable. Jeff Award-winner Donterrio Johnson, whose talent has taken him onto almost every Chicago stage, is wonderful as young Jack. Matt Kahler, another veteran of the Hypocrites’ wacky Gilbert & Sullivan productions, is excellent in several roles, primarily as a fatherly Mr. Petronski, while also providing much of the accompaniment for this musical.
With bullying still on the rise, made easier today by the simplicity and anonymity of social media, this clever musical is just as timely now as its source. Estes’ juvenile novel captured the hearts and minds of children and adults back in 1944. The story is relevant today and is still read in elementary classrooms, more than 70 years later. Unfortunately we continue to witness kids tormenting other kids, as well as adults bullying and threatening other grownups.
But if the lesson taught by this winsome one-act musical can effect just one child, it bears many repeated stagings. The sincere message of this show must finally be taken to heart so that bullying will finally stop forever.
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents “The Hundred Dresses” through February 12 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Additional reviews of plays and musicals by Colin may be read at theatreinchicago.com.